Montana legislation (House Bill 637) could drastically impact big game hunting for nonresident DIY hunters. Here’s what’s at stake if wildlife becomes private property.
Each fall thousands of people from around the country flock to Montana to hunt. They come for the state’s wilderness, abundant game, and the mythology that imbues its vast, open landscape. And because it’s one of the few Lower 48 states where wildlife—and access to it—is still a public trust.
Montana’s free and fair wildlife access sets it apart in the West. In New Mexico, for example, nearly half of all hunting tags go to private landowners, who can sell them to the highest bidder. In Colorado, up to 25 percent of tags are given to landowners to sell. In Wyoming, hunters can’t hunt in wilderness areas without paying an outfitter to guide them. In Texas, most land has been privatized.
That’s why when Montana’s state government moved to privatize most hunting, people from across the country and political spectrum rose in opposition. In January, state Sen. Jason Ellsworth (R) introduced SB 143 in the state legislature, which runs all Republican for the first time in 15 years. The bill would have pulled 60 percent of out-of-state deer and elk tags from the public pool and reserved them for outfitters, meaning only people with money to pay for a guided hunt (an easy $10,000 factoring in out-of-state travel) would have access. But after legislators received thousands of calls and emails, nonresident DIY hunters testified in the legislature (including one guy who said he drove 24 hours straight from Arkansas), and letters to the editor decrying the measure saturated Montana newspapers, Ellsworth amended the bill. Now it creates an early draw for nonresident hunters willing to pay a $300 fee for a better chance at drawing a tag.
“I’ll publicly thank him for amending the bill. It’s a testament to the fact that legislators still listen to their constituents,” says John Sullivan, Montana chair of the national group Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “But it still creates a class system of haves and have-nots. We don’t want to see a situation where the rich have a leg up on a public resource.”
Ellsworth’s bill hasn’t been the only attempt to privatize Montana wildlife. In February, Speaker of the House Wylie Galt (R) introduced a bill to grant up to 10 transferable bull elk tags to landowners with more than 640 acres. Galt’s family, as it happens, owns more land than almost any other private landowner in the state. People rallied against the bill, which Sullivan likened to “the king’s forest all over again.” Outcry was so overwhelming legislators tabled the bill in committee.
What’s at stake, says Ray Rasker, co-founder of research group Headwaters Economics, isn’t just access to hunting. It’s the fact that Montana is one of the last Lower 48 bastions for an unblemished model in which wildlife is a public trust. “That model is the envy of the world,” he says. “People from all over come to Montana for access to the outdoors, not because it’s owned by a handful of billionaires who want to sell access.”
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