Outfitter in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

An outfitter leads a pack train through the Bob Marshall Wilderness in this IR file photo.

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A one-time allowance for outfitted nonresident hunters to purchase a big game license has seen about 350 purchased in the program’s first few weeks.

House Bill 637 from Joliet Republican Seth Berglee saw a major amendment in the waning days of this year’s Legislature. The amendment offered out-of-state hunters booked with an outfitter prior to April 1, but who had not drawn one of the 17,000 big game licenses offered, to purchase one.

In order to purchase one of the licenses, proof of booking with an outfitter prior to April 1, such as a signed contract, must be provided to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. The agency then makes the license available for purchase.

After the bill’s mid-May signing into law, FWP began notifying the 15,000 nonresidents who were unsuccessful in the draw about the opportunity offered under HB 637, according to spokesman Greg Lemon. So far, 613 have submitted the required documentation with 353 purchased, he said. The cost of licenses is the same as ones obtained through the draw, which is $1,046 for a deer/elk combo.

FWP has been able to accommodate the additional verification and license issuances without additional staff, Lemon said Friday.

“They’ve got until Aug. 30 to take us up on that, so really we don’t know what that final number will be,” he said.

The late amendment to HB 637 was a controversial one. The amendment also changes nonresident preference points to favor those hunting with outfitters over do-it-yourself hunters.

Supporters point to a 30% surge in nonresident applications for this year’s drawing that diluted outfitter client pools and resulted in a dip in bookings. Without relief, some outfitting businesses risked going under. For the long term, outfitters say they need stability in the drawings in order to know year-to-year how many clients will be successful.

Opponents have blasted the changes as coming too late in the session and unfairly favoring those who can afford an outfitter over do-it-yourself hunters. The amendment also goes against a citizen ballot initiative that did away with guaranteed licenses for outfitters, opponents say.

Mac Minard with the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association agreed that it will be difficult to predict how many hunters ultimately purchase licenses. The organization estimated about 3,000 additional licenses would be necessary to make up for the slump in clients' drawings, but he would not be surprised if the number was closer to 1,500.

“The system seems to be working,” he said. “Our commitment to the department is that those criteria in the bill are locked in stone. We haven’t asked for any adjustments or changes, so they have been rejecting some of them.”

The main criteria in question are proof of booking with an outfitter prior to April 1. Not all outfitters, particularly those with a lot of repeat clientele, may formalize bookings by that date, but the parameters of the one-time program are clear, Minard said. For the most part, MOGA members are “ecstatic” about the ability to book more clients this year, which he said will bring a measurable economic benefit to Montana.

Whether the lag of time between the drawing and passage of the bill meant prospective clients already moved on is difficult to say, although response so far has been mostly positive.

“I have not heard that we missed the window, that some (clients) came and went,” Minard said. “Some outfitters sought to fill those open slots and some may not be in a position to take advantage of this, and maybe pushed (clients) to 2022. What I’m hearing is that they’re glad it happened.”

While the one-time outfitted nonresident licenses went into effect this season, the change in preference points does not start until next year.

The cost of preference points will double from $50 to $100. Outfitted nonresidents may purchase an additional preference point to gain an advantage in a future lottery license. Proceeds go to multiple public access and habitat improvement programs.

Montana State News Bureau

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

This article originally ran on helenair.com.

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