Map showing outfitted lands

This map, produced by Fish, Wildlife and Parks with data supplied by the Board of Outfitters, has been criticized for showing an inflated and inaccurate amount of land in Montana being utilized by hunting outfitters.

A recently produced map showing 18.6 million acres of land in Montana possibly being used by hunting outfitters — more than twice what has previously been reported — has drawn criticism from all quarters.

“It’s not even close to accurate,” said Joe Perry, a Conrad farmer and member of the Private Land/Public Wildlife Council who circulated a copy of the map via email. “Who knows how many acres we’ve got?”

Steve Gallus, executive officer for the Montana Board of Outfitters, said he provided the information to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to create the map knowing that it would be imperfect.

“The map was produced with the caveat that we think these numbers are inflated and the numbers reported next winter will be more accurate,” Gallus said. “Every time I emailed the map to anyone it included that caveat.”

Software challenges

Gallus, a former Butte legislator and fishing guide, took over as executive director of the Montana Board of Outfitters in April 2014. He said that in his first meeting with Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials they requested an updated copy of the map.

But FWP’s Alan Charles told The Gazette that the agency was “out of the map business” and that Gallus had come to him asking the agency to produce the document.

“We were reluctant to do it initially,” Charles said, but FWP director Jeff Hagener agreed to let his GIS staff produce the map but is billing the Department of Labor and Industry for their time. The department houses the Board of Outfitters.

Previous maps had been produced in 2005, 2007, 2011 and 2013.

In 2005 the map showed, within a 7 percent margin of error, that 5.6 million acres were being used by licensed hunting outfitters. In 2011 that had jumped to 7.79 million acres of private lands that “may have been used by licensed outfitters,” but didn’t report property under 40 acres.

The most recently produced map put the figure at 18.6 million acres. On the map FWP included a disclaimer saying: FWP assumes no responsibility for the accuracy of the outfitter data … Questions related to outfitter data depicted on this map should be directed to the (Montana Board of Outfitters).”

“I don’t know what the hell it is. I don’t know if it’s accurate or not,” Charles said.

Outfitters' response

Publication of the map has angered the outfitting industry’s Montana representative, who has already penned a letter to Gov. Steve Bullock expressing his concerns.

“I think the data are flawed,” said Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.

In conversations with some of the state’s more than 280 hunting outfitters and based on the downturn in the economy and the surplus of out-of-state hunting licenses, Minard said he couldn’t reconcile the map with what has been reported in the past.

“It’s probably grossly overinflated,” he said.

“There are elements of the sportsmen community who are going to grab this and say things are out of control,” Minard said. “It will cause an unwarranted and unnecessary response to the landowner community.”

Governor’s request

Perry said he’s not sure who to blame for the map’s inaccuracy but said he distrusts the Board of Outfitters.

“The Board of Outfitters said we fulfilled our obligation,” he said. “FWP said we did the best with what we’ve got. Last year (the Board of Outfitters) promised me a state of the art map. PL/PW needs that information and sportsmen want that information.”

The information is considered so important that Gov. Bullock amended House Bill 274 during the 2013 Legislature to ensure that reporting of outfitted lands in Montana continued. HB 274 was written to reduce the amount of paperwork outfitters have to do and would have made “annual reporting of leased acreage for outfitting” discretionary. Bullock called that directive “unacceptable.”

FWP’s Charles said MOGA fought “tooth and nail” to get the reporting requirement stripped from the bill. But the governor cited the data as vital to the management of wildlife, the setting of hunting seasons and “critical for the activities of the Private Land/Public Wildlife Council,” which has been working on land access issues.

“I have not felt there has been any real commitment on the part of the Board of Outfitters or Steve Gallus to meet the statutory requirement,” Charles said. “I have not seen a real commitment from the Board of Outfitters to give the public accessible information.”

Charles’ comments harken back to 2000 when the Board of Outfitters was criticized in a Legislative Audit Committee report that said the board was “so poorly organized that it cannot properly regulate the outfitting industry or determine whether growth in the industry has reduced public access to land for hunting,” the Associated Press reported.

Ronja Abel, deputy communications director for the governor, wrote in an email that, “Governor Bullock continues to believe it is in the public interest to understand where licensed outfitters are authorized to conduct their business. He has directed the agencies involved to resolve the data issue behind the current map.”

Outdated system

Despite the governor’s declaration about the importance of the information, no map has been produced since 2013 even though numerous requests were made to the Board of Outfitters to provide the figures.

Gallus said that’s because the “immense amount of data” is contained in an outdated database that can’t communicate with the Department of Labor and Industry’s newly updated software, a system that has undergone some “pretty heavy systemic changes.”

“They’ve been talking about converting to a new database for several years now,” Charles said. “I don’t know that they’ve made any progress on that.”

Gallus said a more accurate map could be produced by February 2017 once the department’s system is upgraded to use digital information provided by outfitters that is required to be reported by Nov. 1.

Based on his conversations with Gallus, Minard said, “The contents (of the map) are technically flawed, and its use is ill advised.”

He questioned why the map was even created given that the information could not be properly sorted to portray an accurate representation of outfitted lands in Montana.

“The expectation that I have is that we’re going to have technically sound and valid results provided to the public,” Minard said. “If the map’s purpose is to help inform the hunting public about lands status then why was it so damn important to crank this out in April?”

Gallus said he had been directed to “get a map produced … and build a new system to gather data. That’s where my focus is.”

“I honestly don’t know if they have the capacity to do it right, which means we should send it out to a contractor,” Minard said.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.