Gov. Gianforte signed HB 637 today, a bill that was amended in the final days of the Legislative session to include unlimited outfitter-sponsored nonresident big game licenses for this year and permanently skews the preference point system.
This bill was so riddled with problems to begin with, and was put forward by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. It included spending $1 million on pheasant stocking, removing a 24-hour waiting period for black bear and mountain lions, and removing a required hound handler license for nonresident landowners.
But in the second to last day of the session, bill sponsor Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, brought an amendment requested by outfitters that completely changed the nature of the bill. It was clearly a special interest exerting influence over the allocation of nonresident licenses to benefit their businesses, a concept that had been rejected earlier in the session after strong opposition from public hunters. That came forward in SB 143, sponsored by Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, which had allocated 60 percent of all nonresident big game licenses as outfitter sponsored.
HB 637 wasn’t identical, but it still permanently gives hunters choosing to use the services of an outfitter a big leg up to draw coveted B-10 and B-11 combination licenses. This is counter to the notion that everyone should have an equal opportunity to hunt in Montana, and flies in the face of Montana voters who outlawed special treatment for wealthy, out-of-state tags.
Numerous sporting organizations spoke out against SB 143, with thousands of comments against it. But HB 637, with the last-minute changes, gave public hunters little opportunity to speak out. Hunters did flood the governor’s office requesting that he veto the bill.
We will now look at ways in the 2023 Legislature to rectify the changes to the preference point system that HB 637 instituted to restore equal opportunity for nonresident hunters.