After a year-long battle to get Initiative 161 passed in last November's election — a fight that even entered the courtroom — sponsor Kurt Kephart thought he could rest. The hard work had been done, the battle finally won.
I-161 took away outfitter-sponsored hunting licenses for elk and deer, putting all nonresident elk and deer licenses into one drawing. Before, nonresident hunters who were willing to pay the extra for an outfitter had a better chance of getting a tag than nonresident hunters going it alone.
"The whole bottom line was fair and equitable drawings," said Kephart, a Billings small-business owner.
The initiative also raised the cost of nonresident licenses. Revenue from the sale of the tags funds the state's Block Management Program, which pays landowners to allow public access, as well as habitat projects.
Kephart's rest after the passage of I-161 was short lived. Members of the Montana Legislature have been trying to end-run the measure with a variety of bills that would benefit nonresidents and outfitters. Some of the bills are even sponsored by outfitter-legislators who stand to benefit if their bills are passed.
"We're moving straight away from (I-161) without even giving it a try," Kephart said. "We went 15 years under the old system.
"It's almost like whatever the public thinks doesn't matter to these guys," he added.
Opponents of I-161 have argued that people didn't even know what they were voting for, that signature-gatherers for the ballot issue misrepresented what the law would do. With passage of the measure, naysayers said that with the higher price tag the licenses won't sell out, and they were right in part. FWP released information this week showing that nonresident elk combination licenses did not sell out, while deer licenses did. Rep. Bill Harris, R-Mosby, introduced a bill to repeal I-161, but when it came time for the measure's hearing he said he always meant to kill his bill and only wanted to provoke a discussion of the initiative.
While Harris' measure may be dead, other less direct circumventions of the law are still alive and well.
House Bill 387, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Flynn, a Townsend outfitter, would allow nonresidents to pay an additional $300 for an early bird drawing.
Senate Bill 400, sponsored by Rep. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, would set aside 2,000 nonresident licenses specifically for wilderness outfitters.
According to FWP testimony, the state is already expecting to host 27,000 to 28,000 nonresident deer and elk hunters this fall.
HB 285, sponsored by Rep. Harris, would require FWP to issue unlimited either-sex archery permits in Missouri River Breaks hunting districts.
Kephart is frustrated at the assault on I-161 from so many fronts. Sportsmen's groups are urging their members to write to Gov. Brian Schweitzer urging him to veto the measures if they are passed by the Legislature.
"Even if people disagree with what I'm saying, they need to know what's going on in Helena," Kephart said.