Hunters Blast Effort to Overturn Outfitter-License Initiative

Posted on March 10, 2011

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By CODY BLOOMSBURG

HELENA — Nick Morrison’s voice trembled as he told the committee how this past hunting season had been his 60th and he was looking forward to sharing it with his 13-year-old grandson on a spot of the land he had hunted for years. But when the Great Falls man went to make sure he still had permission from the landowner, he was told the rights had been leased to an outfitter.

“You try explaining that to a 13-year-old,” he said. It was three weeks into the season, he said, before they found a place to hunt.

Last November, Montana voters approved Initiative 161 to end outfitter-sponsored hunting licenses. But Rep. Bill Harris, R-Mosby, thought people didn’t understand what they were voting for, so he brought a bill to overturn it in the hopes of sparking further debate on the issue.

Harris, a long-time outfitter and rancher, requested the bill be drafted after his election in November.  He was quoted in a Nov. 11 article in the Billings Gazette as saying he thought the issue needed more debate and that the motives of the initiative were misrepresented by a campaign funded by out-of-state interests.

House Bill 537 came before a committee for a hearing on Thursday and hunters from around the state were there to make sure outfitter-sponsored licenses didn’t come back.

Morrison was one of more than a dozen people who rose in opposition to the repeal, which Harris said in his opening he intended to have tabled after the hearing anyway.

No one rose in support of the bill, but the opposition supplied answers to the questions Harris posed in his opening: Why did they vote for it? And what did they think it would do?

Kurt Kephart of Billings was the primary source of funding for the I-161 campaign — he took out a second mortgage on his home for it — and he made the trip up to Helena to argue against repeal. Kephart said there were numerous reasons why he was so strongly for I-161, but would hold his comments to the main two.

He said it gave all non-resident hunters the same odds of drawing licenses, and, secondly, he liked the funding it gave to wildlife and sportsmen without running funds through an industry.

I-161 will provide an estimated $700,000 annually for hunting access and another $1.5 million annually for habitat preservation through increased license fees.

Committee chair, Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, admonished Harris’ tactic of trying to use a bill hearing as forum for public debate during Harris’ closing when he tried to rebut some of the comments made by opponents.

After the hearing, Harris said he still feels people really don’t know what I-161 will do, or why it was brought. He said he hopes to get a study of the fiscal impact of the initiative in the works.

– Reporter Cody Bloomsburg can be reached at 208-816-0809 or by e-mail at crbloomsburg@hotmail.com

Posted in: Daily Grind