Sunday, February 28, 2021

SB 143 is good for Montana’s hunters and small businesses

by Jason Ellsworth
| February 21, 2021 12:15 AM

As a small business owner and a lifelong sportsman who hunts on public lands, I have a deep appreciation for the outsized role that both play in making Montana the Last Best Place.

Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy, especially in our rural communities. Montanans grow up hunting and recreating on public lands and raise our daughters and sons to value the land and the cherished opportunities it provides.

This legislative session, I’ve introduced a bill that would not only help Montana small businesses, but would also generate more than $1 million per year to fund programs that expand public access to public lands for hunting and fishing.

Currently, Montana’s outfitters are forced to operate their businesses based on a lottery draw for out-of-state, outfitted hunters, creating instability for these small businesses and the guides they hire who don’t know if they’ll continue to have their jobs. This system also hurts the rural, small businesses that depend on the money out-of-state, outfitted hunters spend at their stores and in their communities.

The solution I’m proposing, Senate Bill 143, would place no more than 39% of out-of-state elk and deer tags into an “early bird” limited outfitter pool so outfitters and the thousands of Montana small businesses that benefit from their out-of-state customers can plan for and realize the full economic benefit of these tourists.

Why the 39% number? In recent years, about 40% of out-of-state hunters who draw a tag have chosen to use a Montana outfitter for their hunting trips. That means SB 143 isn’t changing how many out-of-state tags go to outfitted customers. What SB 143 does do is allow the tags to be purchased earlier in the year during an “early bird” window between January 1 and March 15 to help small businesses be able to adequately plan for the year regarding their staffing, materials, and schedules. SB 143 doesn’t guarantee business to any outfitter — outfitters still have to earn their customers’ patronage.

Additionally, SB 143 would increase the fee for outfitted, out-of-state applicants from $100 to $200. The fee would not increase for the do-it-yourself out-of-state hunters. I’m still waiting for an official fiscal note, but the current estimate is that the bill will generate between $1.5 million and $2 million more dedicated to increasing public access to public lands. SB 143 specifies that 25% the new money will go to Access to Lands Act agreements, 25% to Block Management Access programs, 25% to the Future Fisheries Program (with priority given to funding projects that provide public access through private property), and 25% to the purchase of permanent easements through private property to access otherwise inaccessible public lands. Up to 10% of the funds can be used for partnering opportunities with land trusts and other conservation organizations to pay for these access opportunities, as well as supporting the Private Land/Public Wildlife Advisory Committee.

SB 143 could also help decrease the current competition between Montana resident public land hunters from competing with out-of-staters on public lands. We welcome all visitors but can also acknowledge our access points have seen a huge upswing in traffic, especially since COVID-19 hit.

Nothing in the bill affects the current draw system for Montana resident hunters, including any special permit areas for resident hunters. All bonus points for the Missouri Breaks, Elkhorns, etc. will remain unchanged for resident hunters.

The Senate Fish and Game Committee recently passed the bill and soon the full Senate will have the opportunity to vote to support Montana small businesses and resident public land hunters. I encourage my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to vote “yes.”

Senator Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, is member of the Senate Fish and Game Committee.