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Montana’s hunting outfitters suffered through a strange year after a hike in nonresident license fees and changes in the type of nonresident licenses available.

Some outfitters were booking more nonresident clients than usual on short notice, said Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association. Others were able to stay busy but may have cut their prices.

“There’s an element of pure desperation; some are flat out going under,” Minard said. “I don’t know if that’s a product of business management or the environment in which they were conducting business.”

Hunting outfitters, along with other tourism-dependent businesses, suffered through a tough economic climate nationally. But some hunting outfitters also had the additional pressures of fewer game animals following a brutal winter that cut deep into pronghorn, mule deer and whitetail deer populations in many areas.

Convention mention

Outfitters will be able to commiserate this weekend as more than 70 MOGA-member businesses are preregistered to gather in Billings on Thursday through Saturday for the group’s annual winter convention at the Holiday Inn Grand. The event will feature a governor’s candidate forum Friday at 10:30 a.m., open to the public, as well as other discussions on conservation, tourism and service.

One of the presentations will be a noontime discussion Friday about Initiative 161 by Evan Tipton, who wrote an undergraduate study of the legislation’s effect through the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.

The initiative, passed in 2010 by Montana voters, raised nonresident hunting license fees and removed licenses that were guaranteed to hunters who booked with an outfitter.

The initiative was adopted as the economy tanked and wolf predation on wild game took center stage.

Norma Nickerson, who leads the institute, said the repercussions of I-161 are ripe for a follow-up survey, if funding can be found.

For Minard, there’s no doubt that the initiative had a definite effect on his members, but MOGA is “past all of that.

“The bright spot is that it’s reversible,” he said, not referring to the initiative but instead to the climate within the state. He said giving nonresidents who didn’t draw a big-game license preference points for their next drawing is a step in the right direction.

“We will see a more favorable climate for nonresidents,” he said.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is still awaiting some final numbers before it can tally the effects of I-161. Money from nonresident license sales helps fund the department and the state’s Block Management Program that leases private lands for public hunting.

The calculations are complicated this year by another piece of legislation that allowed nonresidents to return the elk portion of their elk-deer big game combination license to the state.

“There are so many variables this year,” said Hank Worsech, FWP’s license bureau chief.

Minard, however, sees one statistic as suggesting a loss of interest in hunting Montana. Montana used to get about 1,200 people on an alternate list for licenses should they become available. This year, that waiting list only had about 120 people, Worsech said.

“That is an empirical example of people’s changing interest in hunting Montana,” Minard said.