Carefully scheduled to coincide with the Spokane Public Radio station’s fall pledge drive, my annual Montana hunting-fishing expedition is always full of discovery.
This year, the education tended to be a series of blunt reminders to the lessons I’d learned in the first 25 years of my life as a Montana resident.
First, Montanans don’t really like out-of-staters, but they love their money.
On Tuesday, Montana voters approved Initiative 161, which will abolish guaranteed hunting licenses and jack up fees for out-of-state clients of professional outfitters.
About 7,800 outfitter- sponsored big-game licenses will be replaced by an equal number of nonresident licenses available through public drawings.
At first that sounds good to the average nonresident unguided hunter, except that the already hefty fees on nonresident licenses will increase by roughly half.
The initiative calls for increasing fees from $628 to $897 for a nonresident big-game license and from $328 to $527 for a nonresident deer license.
The root of this issue isn’t whether Montanans like or dislike Minnesotans and Washingtonians. In talking with resident hunters, it’s clear that they’ve been upset by the growing amount of private farm and ranch land being leased and locked up by outfitters.
Locals like to see farmers and ranchers compensated for their stewardship to valuable game animals, but they’re concerned about the commercialization of public wildlife.
That’s a narrow line to walk.
Some outfitters in Montana charge clients more than $10,000 for the promise of shooting a trophy elk on private land.
It’s easy to see why ranchers aren’t impressed by the average local hunter bearing a box of apples and a bottle of whiskey in gratitude for land access.
But it remains to be seen whether the new system hurts Montana’s small businesses.
My wife reads my column, so I’m chary to report how many hundreds of dollars I spent in Montana this past week beyond the hundreds I’d already spent on hunting and fishing license fees.
And I’m just one of thousands of nonresident hunters trickling out cash in big and small towns alike.
Higher fees and lack of a guaranteed hunt will discourage some out-of-state hunters from traveling to Montana. I can’t say how many, but I can say that Idaho outpriced the market a few years ago and hasn’t been able to sell its allotment of formerly coveted nonresident elk tags.
Also to be seen is how Initiative 161 will impact the state’s wildly successful Block Management Area Program, which pays landowners to allow public hunting on vast areas of private land.
Most of the BMA funding came from the high fees on those 7,800 outfitter-sponsored licenses the voters just eliminated.
Land of plenty, usually: The wealth of wildlife resources Montana stewards is as fragile as the state’s economy.
Wet spring weather has dramatically reduced the pheasant population in Central Montana the past two years, and an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease decimated the once flourishing antelope herds.
If something unforeseen tanks the state’s prized elk herds, an even higher percentage of nonresidents will look elsewhere.
It’s easier to justify getting fleeced when you can fill your tag.
Teen tragedy and triumph: Two hunting stories involving teenagers hit the front pages of Montana papers while I was there.
• A girl accidentally discharged her hunting rifle as she unloaded it after a hunt, killing her brother.
Reminder: Muzzle control might be the two most important words taught in hunter education.
• Five teenage boys sleeping in a wood-heated tent at a family hunting camp reacted effectively to save the lives of their fathers and grandfather, who had lost consciousness from carbon monoxide in their propane-heated tent.
Reminder: It pays to teach our children well, and to ventilate the tent.
Other insights during my visit to Montana include:
• Dying or fungus- infested brown trout are an annual post-spawning sight in the Missouri River, but this year’s unusually warm fall weather and water temperatures are exacerbating the problem.
• Montanans are critical of the Yakima Herald- Republic outdoor columnist who wrote about using radios and GPS to aid in his Montana antelope hunt – a possible violation of Montana’s rules against using electronics to bag game.
• Common burdock, a noxious weed, should be removed immediately from a hunting dog if contacted in the field. Dogs attempting to self-groom the weed from their fur can suffer serious abrasions and possible allergic reactions to the inside of their mouths and throat from the microhooks – the inspiration for Velcro – on the burdock seed head.
• None of the downsides will prevent me from returning to Montana to hunt and fish again, as long as I can afford it.
Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org