Groups trying to untangle hunting license fee inconsistencies

Montana FWP not unique in considering boosting resident license fees
2013-09-11T00:10:00Z 2014-05-26T22:29:30Z Groups trying to untangle hunting license fee inconsistenciesBy BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Montana has the distinction of being the most expensive state in the West for a nonresident to purchase an elk hunting license, and the second-most expensive place to hunt deer.

A nonresident hunter must pay $809 to hunt elk in Montana — second only to Arizona at $810 — and $570 to hunt deer. Oregon, at $516, is the second-most expensive place for a nonresident to hunt deer.

For many other hunting licenses, though, Montana is comparable to the other states or much less expensive.

The figures are included in a breakdown of costs for 12 Western states, excluding California and including Nebraska, composed for the Environmental Quality Council as it reviews Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ licensing structure and fees as required by the passage of House Bill 609. The council meets again Wednesday in Helena.

The same data also has been provided to the Fish and Wildlife Licensing and Funding Advisory Council, created by FWP to study the issues. The group first met in mid-August.

Residents pay less

While out-of-state hunters coming to Montana to hunt deer and elk pay more than the Western average, resident hunters are paying less than their neighbors for all fishing and hunting licenses.

A Montana resident pays $26 for a deer tag and $30 to hunt elk, with the price of a required $10 conservation license added in. The 12-state average is $51 for deer and $90 for elk. Arizona had the highest total fee for resident deer tags at $82, Nebraska had the highest-priced resident elk tag at $179, closely followed by Arizona at $172.

So one of the questions the EQC and FWP group will be looking at is whether resident fees should be raised. The last increase was 30 percent in 2005. However, as FWP director Jeff Hagener told the advisory council, the last license fee increase did not increase revenue for FWP, possibly because the state offers discounted licenses for a host of hunters — including the young, old, disabled and college students. The discounted and free licenses cost FWP an estimated $4.8 million in 2012

Both advisory groups will be making recommendations before the next legislative session in 2015.

Other game agencies

Montana FWP is not unique in its situation. Idaho Fish and Game is pondering a 20 percent license fee increase for residents after last year’s sale of nonresident tags fell short, costing the department $3.5 million. Wyoming Game and Fish, after being denied a 20 percent license fee boost by its Legislature, is slashing its budget by $4.6 million.

Like Montana, Idaho’s nonresident license sales have been declining since 2008. To figure out why, Idaho Fish and Game surveyed nonresident hunters in 2009 and found that the economy, license fee increases and a decline of game animals blamed on wolves were reasons they cited for not hunting there.

Hunters are important to FWP because license sales provide more than two-thirds of the agency’s funding, with nonresidents paying two-thirds of that amount.

One of the problems the states face is that about one-third of the hunting population does not purchase a license every year. According to FWP’s Justin Gude, raising license fees could backfire on the agency. Statistics he presented to the advisory council noted that there are fewer new hunters when license prices increase. More important than new hunters to FWP’s coffers, though, is the retention of current hunters.

Maintaining a stable hunter population would require either a 9 percent retention rate or a 200 percent increase in recruitment, Gude told the advisory council. Over the past three years, the average retention and recruitment growth rate for hunters in Montana has fallen 2.5 percent a year.

Presidential funding

Although many hunters may not like to hear it, the election of President Barack Obama and the resulting increase in U.S. residents buying ammunition and firearms out of fear of greater federal regulation by the Obama administration has been a savior for agencies like FWP.

The sale of guns, ammo and fishing gear carries a federal tax, a portion of which is returned to states. Luckily, those tax returns to Montana have been able to offset a decline in hunting license sales to keep FWP’s finances in the black. But those fees are still a smaller percentage of the agency’s overall revenue — about 21 percent.

Another smaller boost to FWP’s coffers will come next year in the form of Senate Bill 178, which allows FWP to keep 10 percent of a nonresident’s fee if they choose to return the elk portion of their big-game combination deer-elk tag. Hunters would do this if they were not able to draw a special tag in the area they wished to hunt. Hunters must purchase the tag before they can apply in the drawing.

The change is expected to result in the retention of about $48,000 a year from nonresidents. Last year, the return of licenses resulted in a $430,000 loss to FWP. The previous year the loss was $600,000.

One other piece of legislation that will benefit FWP’s revenue was House Bill 140, which allowed the agency to charge a fee to hunters applying for a special permit. The fees are expected to generate another $1.25 million annually and go into effect next year.

Spreading blame

Some hunters, outfitters and landowners are claiming that the state’s voters are responsible for killing the goose (nonresident hunters) that had previously laid the golden egg. They blame Billings businessman Kurt Kephart for introducing legislation in 2011 that got rid of guaranteed licenses for outfitters and raised the price of nonresident tags.

“I think he should be held accountable,” said Carly Garrison, 26, a Carroll College student. “I think the nonresident hunters saw this as an agenda against them.”

Kephart said he’d take the blame even though he doesn’t think his initiative is responsible. He pointed to House Bill 607, enacted in the 2011 Legislature, as one of the funding challenges for FWP. HB 607 was the bill that allowed nonresidents to return the elk portion of their combination deer-elk tag.

“The only mistake I made is it should have been more flexible,” Kephart said, allowing the license fee to be adjusted to reflect the market. “But you don’t always have that option in an initiative.”

Kephart said there is room for resident license fees to go up, which he said are a great value — a theme echoed by many of the state’s conservation groups.

But he also pointed to another problem that may be affecting license sales that’s an entirely different and difficult subject: access to game. He said friends from Pennsylvania who used to visit Montana to hunt elk weren’t coming any longer because they weren’t seeing game animals on publicly accessible lands.

“When you have high populations of wildlife and fairly easy access to that wildlife, that makes for a pretty enjoyable hunt,” Kephart said.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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