Editor’s note: this article was amended on Feb. 4 following a hearing in committee.

A new bill in the Montana legislature would guarantee up to 60% of all non-resident deer and elk tags to hunters sponsored by an outfitter. On Jan. 25 State Senator Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton introduced SB 143 and it was heard in the fish and game committee on Feb. 2. Hunters are sharply divided on the merits of this legislation.

In effect, the bill reverses voter-approved ballot initiative I-161 that abolished outfitter-sponsored tags in 2010.

Colter Heckman is the owner and outfitter of Montana Safaris in Great Falls. In a widely viewed YouTube video, he praised this SB 143 and sought to allay its fervent opposition. Citing a study from the University of Montana, he claimed that the average do-it-yourself hunter only spends $600 in the state, while the average outfitted hunter spends $3,500.

“Outfitters are the ones giving jobs here in Montana, spending money at your local businesses,” Heckman said in his video. “These non-outfitted, non-resident people don’t spend money here. Why would we cater to someone who doesn’t live here and doesn’t spend any money here and only wants to use our land and resources for their benefit? That’s the people it’s going to hurt—and… good. We should get something in return for letting people use Montana’s land. All it’s doing is trying to give priority to the people who spend the most money here.”

Sen. Ellsworth believes his bill has been mischaracterized by many of its opponents in the hunting community. In an interview with MeatEater, he said that his goal is actually to create more public hunting opportunity for Montanans and non-residents.

“When that ballot initiative [I-161] came across, what they anticipated was that there would be more [private] ground available for people to hunt on. And the source we have for that is Block Management Access,” Ellsworth said. “So, when they stopped doing the outfitters license, we have dropped over a million acres of that land.”

Ellsworth said his bill will create more tags and incrementally increase the price of outfitted tags in order to generate revenue for private-public land access partnerships.

“I’m a small business owner and I got to talking to the outfitters and they’re like, ‘you know, we’re having a real problem with hunters being able to book trips,’” Ellsworth said. He was surprised to find that outfitters have no guarantees they can provide hunts to their clients.

“It’s just a pure lottery system. And I’m like, well, that’s a real weird way to try to run a business just based off of a lottery system. So, I started looking at the data and it looks like about, and I don’t have the exact numbers to date, but I’m getting them finalized, but it looks like about 40% of the tags have always gone to outfitters.”

Ellsworth said he expected his bill to be amended in committee and the number of tags reserved for outfitters will likely change as appropriate.

“We’re not changing the number of outfitters or licenses that they get,” he said. “We’re just setting it to a certain number so that they can manage their business correctly. And then in return, what we would do as a state is charge more for that outfitter license. It’s up to the committees, but an extra $200 a tag, and that amounts to about $2.4 to $2.8 million a year.”

He said that extra revenue will go into increasing public access to public land, free tags for disabled veterans, and noxious weed control.

Though Ellsworth insists that the narrative has been flipped and people grossly misunderstand his intent, the bill has been broadly panned by Montana hunters, resident and non-resident alike. It has been called “protectionism,” “outfitter welfare,” and a “hand-out to wealthy hunters” in animated discussions on social media. Many speculate that this would actually further reduce unpaid private hunting opportunity and Block Management Access acres because outfitters will be able and incentivized to lease more land, and landowners will be able to sell their landowner tags, also increasing crowding on public lands.

MeatEater Conservation Director Ryan Callaghan offered his take on the bill: “In short, if you are a landowner or an outfitter in the state of Montana, you will have the additional benefit of state-allocated, fully transferable tags for deer and elk. If you are a non-resident hunter that either hunts primarily on private land with a good landowner relationship or enjoys seeing the country with a knowledgeable outfitter, there will be an additional benefit of guaranteed tags.”

However, Ryan says, DIY hunters from out of state would suffer under these regulations: “If you’re a non-resident hunter who explores public land or uses public access programs, the ‘hat’ your tag is drawn from will now be divided between landowners, outfitters, and you.”

“The reason I voted for I-161 in 2010 was the funding for our Block Management programs,” Ryan said. “SB 143 funds for public access are ill defined and not set up to succeed in the competitive marketplace created by guaranteed commoditized tags SB 143 creates. In my opinion, Montana FWP will spend more managing this program than they will get from it and those of us in the lottery system will suffer for it.”

Ben Lamb is an independent conservation consultant who spent years working in the state capitol in Helena. He said outfitters don’t deserve special treatment other industries don’t receive.

“Everybody suffered who owns a small business over the last year,” Lamb told MeatEater. “Outfitters are just as susceptible to market forces like many of us who own our own businesses, but none of us are asking for a guaranteed client base. It’s also disingenuous to claim that the bill doesn’t increase nonresident tags. It literally moves the landowner sponsored license over to the B11 structure (increase of 2,000 B11 tags), while allowing non-resident landowners to pull from the resident landowner-sponsored tags.”

Lamb also says we shouldn’t relitigate an issue Montanans have already decided: “The voters spoke in 2010 and eliminated outfitter set-aside licenses. To come back in 10 years and try to undermine that now, after they feel they have a governor who will go along with their tag theft, is disappointing.”

Fresh Tracks TV host and hunting personality Randy Newberg has voiced his strong opposition and driven a great deal of attention to the measure.

“This is a huge negative for self-guided non-residents to hunt Montana,” Newberg said in a widely shared Instagram post. “As demand for tags gets higher and higher, cutting the pool of tags by 60% to those inclined to hunt on their own is against all I stand for.”

Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, believes this bill is not only bad for Montana, but represents a threat to conservation institutions across the continent.

“We live like royalty here in Montana. The cornerstone of that privilege lies in the principle that we all have equal right to the wildlife found within our borders—no matter who our parents are and no matter the size of our paycheck, it belongs to all of us,” Tawney told MeatEater. “The privatization of our wildlife is a threat to our everyday opportunities and ultimately the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Instead of a model that rewards the elite, we have chosen the democratic delegation to the masses.”

Tawney said this bill harkens to similar legislation seen recently in New Mexico, Colorado, and elsewhere: “While our focus is now on Montana, we must stay vigilant across the West and North America. This bill needs to die a quick death—defending Montana’s management model and sending a strong message that similar efforts will not be tolerated elsewhere.”

SB 143 was be discussed in a committee hearing on Feb. 2 but no vote was taken. Amendments are expected soon. Because this bill deals directly with non-residents, the opinions of hunters from outside Montana may receive a higher level of attention than normal. Ryan Callaghan encourages anyone who hunts in Montana, or wants to someday, to pick up the phone and call members of the Montana Senate Fish and Game Committee, whom you can reach here.

Feature image via Captured Creative.