Bidding wars on coveted big game hunting tags are common at conservation group gatherings, but on Thursday a couple of those groups were vying against each other to be the auctioneer of some of the popular Montana tags.
Western state wildlife agencies commonly provide tags to conservation groups as a way to raise additional money for game management. Deep-pocketed bidders ran the Montana bighorn sheep tag up to a record $480,000 last year at the Wild Sheep Foundation Convention and Sporting Expo in Reno, Nev.
At their August meeting the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission heard requests from eight conservation organizations seeking one or more of five state tags — for moose, mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep and a mountain goat — for the 2015 season. Representatives of most of the groups were in attendance to tout their conservation work, membership, auction attendance and return of dollars to the state in hopes of being awarded a tag.
But with some groups asking for the same tags, the commissioners had a tough time deciding how to choose. Should the decision be based strictly on return of money to the state? Should special consideration be given to groups that have worked on a species in the past? The choice was made even more complicated when two Montana chapters of Safari Club International went toe to toe over a mountain goat tag.
“This has been our baby here for the last five years, so I hope you would take that into consideration,” said Brad Lencioni of the Great Falls chapter of SCI.
“We took mountain goats under our wing a couple of years ago because they were being kicked around,” he added.
Lencioni was squared off against the Billings SCI chapters’ Tex Janecek, who touted his chapter’s online bidding as a way to draw thousands of more interested hunters.
“So we’re going to have a very competitive process,” he said.
Janacek was seeking both the moose and goat tags. For the moose tag, he was up against Ducks Unlimited, which touted its group’s work in wetlands as a benefit for moose and mallards.
After the first commission vote ended in a draw, Commissioner Matt Tourtlotte, of Billings, said he didn’t think the commission should place two tags with essentially the same group — Safari Club International — even if they were different chapters.
“Essentially those tag dollars go to the same parent group,” Tourtlotte said.
By state statute, each group can keep up to 10 percent of the proceeds from the auction sale price to help pay for the fundraiser.
Commissioner Gary Wolfe, of Missoula, made a motion to break up the tags and award the mountain goat tag to the Great Falls SCI chapter and the moose to the Billings chapter. The vote again ended in a draw.
In separate motions the commission then voted to award the goat tag to Great Falls SCI and the moose license to Ducks Unlimited.
“It’s a tough position for the commission to be in,” said Dan Vermillion, the commission’s chairman from Livingston.
Vermillion then noted that he hoped the conservation groups know how much the commission appreciates all of the work they do for wildlife in Montana. He also suggested that the SCI affiliates coordinate their requests in the future so they aren’t bidding against each other.
Uncontested, the bighorn sheep tag went to the Wild Sheep Foundation, the mule deer tag to the Mule Deer Foundation and the elk tag was awarded to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Auctions of tags for the 2014 Montana season raised $400,000. The highest price was $320,000 for a bighorn sheep tag, followed by elk, $30,000; moose, $21,000; goat, $15,000; and mule deer, $14,000.
With warming winters becoming more common, the Fish and Wildlife Commission agreed to mold its waterfowl seasons to accommodate later hunting in southeastern Montana. The idea is that waterfowl are more concentrated along the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers later into the season, so why not gear the season to that?
Under proposals that will go out for public comment, the duck season in the Central Flyway (east of the Continental Divide) would be divided into two zones. In Zone 1, which is the northern portion, the duck season would run from Oct. 4 to Jan. 8. Goose season would be from Oct. 4 to Jan. 11 and then resume the following weekend running Jan. 17-21.
In Zone 2, the duck season would be from Oct. 4-Oct. 19, close for two weeks, then resume on Nov. 1 and run through Jan. 20. The goose season, which the commission proposed to include Yellowstone and Carbon counties for the goose season only, would be from Oct. 4-19, and then from Nov. 1-Jan. 28.
In the Pacific Flyway (west of the Continental Divide), the duck and goose seasons would be from Oct. 4-Jan. 11, close and then reopen the following weekend running from Jan. 17-21.
Public comment on the proposals will be taken until Aug. 22.
In other action, the commission approved FWP’s pursuit of a land acquisition next to the South Billings Boulevard bridge, across from Riverfront Park. The 10.5 acres, if purchased, would create a new fishing access site and boat launch, possibly for motorized boats. An environmental assessment will be conducted to review the proposal. As part of that process, there would be a 30 day public comment period.
The land has been offered to the department, according to Bob Gibson, Region 5 information officer for FWP in Billings. He said the agency would also pursue funding assistance from other groups for the purchase and development of the site.
The commission also approved the $450,000 purchase of a conservation easement on 2,800 acres in northeastern Montana’s Valley County as well as the expenditure of another $78,000 for improvements to the property for a grazing rotation system and land rehabilitation.
Under the easement, the landowners will provide the public with a minimum of 750 hunting days and 150 angling days annually.