HELENA — A bill meant to set aside a portion of non-resident hunting licenses for outfitters’ clients in Montana advanced Monday in the state Senate – but not before the set-aside was amended out of the bill.
The amendment – proposed by Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls – instead allows non-resident hunters to pay $300 more to enter an early lottery for elk and deer licenses, so they can hire an outfitter with a license-in-hand.
The amendment to Senate Bill 143 passed 26-24, with all 19 Senate Democrats and seven Republicans in favor.
The Senate then endorsed the bill on a 27-23 vote, setting up a final vote later this week before the measure advances to the House.
But the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, indicated he’ll try to move the bill back to its original form when it reaches the House.
“I guess as it stands, I’m not in whole support,” he said. “But that’s also the reason we have two different bodies. So, I will be working within the House, and hopefully getting it back along the path it belongs.”
Montana hunting outfitters, who cater mostly to out-of-state clients, had come out in strong support of the original bill, saying they need the certainty of knowing their clients can have a license, so they can plan their season.
Right now, all non-resident hunters must take part in a lottery for big-game licenses – and outfitters said their clients sometimes come up empty, either leaving the outfitter with cancellations or forcing them to overbook and turn some clients away.
Before the amendment, SB143 set aside 39% of non-resident elk and deer licenses for outfitting clients – about the percentage that they end up with now, under the lottery system.
But opponents of the bill said outfitters should not be guaranteed a set amount of licenses, that it disadvantages hunters who don’t hire outfitters, and that it could lead to more land being locked up for outfitter clients.
Senators said SB143 had generated thousands of emails and phone calls from supporters and opponents of the measure.
Jacobson’s amendment said 40% of non-resident licenses would be awarded in an early draw, between Jan. 1 and Jan. 15 of the hunting year, for those who wanted to pay an extra $300 for the privilege.
Jacobson said those winning the early draw would have plenty of time to hire an outfitter, if they chose, and give outfitters advance notice of their clientele.
“I think this will accomplish much of what we want to do, without us creating winners and losers,” he said. “It still gives (outfitted hunters) and advantage over the regular guy who wants to come in and hunt.”
The amendment also changed how the extra money from the licenses would be spent, directing all of it – about $5 million – to Habitat Montana, a state program that acquires land to create more public access for hunting.
Under the old bill, extra money raised by the outfitter license set-aside would be reserved for the block management hunting program, fishery development, free licenses for disabled veterans and purchasing easements that grant access over private land.