Cash Register Conservation

Each year in Montana, $1 billion is spent on hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching. Can FWP maintain a supply of fish and wildlife to keep up with the demand? By Tom Dickson

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
November–December 2002

It’s early on a saturday morning in October, and Howie Stromberg’s gas station and sports shop in Havre is buzzing with business. Gas and snacks are the main trade, but many of the hunter and angler customers are also stocking up on bait, lures, binoculars, scopes, ammunition, or other gear. “Each year I sell $100,000 just in hunting and fishing licenses,” says Stromberg. “When the fishing and hunting are good around here, business is good.”

Welcome to Montana’s growing fish- and wildlife-based economy. Each year, according to recent federal and state studies, hunters, anglers, and wildlife watchers spend a total of more than $1 billion (that’s billion, with a b) in the Treasure State. That spending supports the equivalent of 8,100 full-time jobs, ranging from hunting outfitters and fishing guides to cafe waitresses and motel owners. Many of the purchases are small—$5 for minnows to fish walleyes at Fort Peck, $20 for gas to hunt muleys in the Cabinets—but they add up. For example, in 1996 wildlife watchers spent $10 million in Montana on wild bird food, and hunters spent over $15 million on firearms and ammunition. The tab for fishing bait alone was $2.6 million.

That’s not all. Some massive fish- and wildlife-related expenditures aren’t even included in the $1 billion figure. Recently construction began on a new $20 million warmwater fish hatchery at Fort Peck, which will produce dozens of construction jobs and, local boosters hope, reinvigorate the Glasgow-area economy. And earlier this summer, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation announced it would build a new $12 million headquarters in Missoula. The national conservation organization currently employs 90 staff members there, paying nearly $4 million per year in salaries.

All this growth is good news, but it doesn’t come free. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) is responsible for sustaining the state’s fish and wildlife populations, which support that spending and economic growth. Funding this work is crucial not only to the state’s fish and wildlife resources, but also to the thousands of Montana businesses that depend on hunters, anglers, and wildlife watchers each year.

Surprisingly, however, only a small part of the $1 billion in spending goes back into the fish and wildlife resource base that supports it. Hunting and fishing licenses pay for most of the state’s fish and wildlife management. Yet the purchase of hunting and fishing licenses makes up just 4 percent of the $1 billion total. “For some reason, many people think spending on hunting and fishing all goes to FWP,” says the agency’s director, Jeff Hagener. “But the fact is, we’re getting a pretty small slice of that.” What that means, says Hagener, is that Montana’s fish and wildlife management needs to maintain adequate funding. Otherwise, the resource base supporting the spending will dwindle.

“Every industry has to reinvest money into what makes it thrive,” says Hagener. “Montana needs to be sure funding for fish and wildlife management keeps up with the demand for those resources.”

Federal survey results
Measuring that demand is done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which earlier this year issued preliminary findings from a survey of hunting, fishing, and wildlife-based recreation in the United States. According to the study, conducted every five years since 1955, hunters, anglers, and wildlife watchers spent a total of $110 billion in the United States in 2001. Montana’s share of that market was $1 billion. (FWP’s Responsive Management Unit staff, who also conduct expenditure surveys, verify the $1 billion figure, though they estimate it’s a bit low).

Most ($580 million) of the spending on hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching is for trip-related expenditures, such as gas, food, and lodging. That’s money going into the till at places like Sam’s Supper Club in Glasgow, where co-owner Diane Brandt says folks from across the country stop in for a meal on their way to the area’s abundant hunting grounds and fishing waters.
“Just last night we had someone eating in here who was a pilot,” Brandt says. “He’d just flown a guy in from California for the sharptail opener.”

Jean Hough, who with her son owns three motels and a restaurant in Broadus, 80 miles south of Miles City, considers hunting essential for her businesses. “We don’t have a lot out here to attract visitors, either out-of-staters or Montanans,” Hough says, “So it’s a big deal for us to have these hunting seasons.”

Fishing is an even bigger deal for the legendary Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop in Livingston. Located in what many anglers nationwide consider a mecca for fly-fishing, Bailey’s has thrived on the area’s reputation for scenery, clean water, and access to big and abundant wild trout. “There’s no question that strong trout populations and good fishing are essential to businesses like ours,” says owner John Bailey.

And the economic effects ripple out like rings from a trout rise. Guides’ clients buy fishing gear at local fly shops. Taxidermists pay to have hides prepared at Montana tanneries. According to Jean Johnson, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, an outfitter gets, on average, roughly $2,500 for a nine-day wilderness elk and deer hunt. Most of the fee, however, goes to pay other Montana businesses that provide support. “That money gets spread throughout the community,” says Johnson. “It pays for the horses, mules, vet bills, truck, trailer, halters, saddles, tents, stoves, food, fuel—the list just goes on and on.”

And it’s not just the hook-and-bullet crowd that’s opening its collective wallet. Those who ogle animals spend amply too. A 2001 study by the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreational Research (ITRR) found that wildlife watching was the single most popular outdoors activity among Montana’s visitors. That doesn’t surprise Karen Hooker, co-owner of WTR Outfitters in Ovando, who has seen a growing number of summer customers come to watch wildlife on horseback. “I’d say that over the past several years, our summer trade has been growing stronger than our fall hunting trade,” she says.

What’s more, resident Montanans also spend freely on binoculars, spotting scopes, and related items for bird watching. Bill Caras, owner of Caras Nursery and Landscape in Missoula, says he sells “literally tons of birdseed each year,” along with hummingbird feeders, bird baths, and fruit-bearing plants that attract winged visitors to backyards.

Add to that the value to Montana when businesses tout the state as they pitch their hunting or fishing store or products to national markets. Mike Ewing, head of sales and marketing for Twin Bridges–based Winston Rods, says the rod manufacturer has spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, promoting Montana and Dillon,” where the company employs 40 people.
Millions. Billions. The money pouring into and across Montana on hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching is staggering. Yet perhaps the most valuable aspect of these activities can’t be measured on a spreadsheet. According to Richard Barrett, an economist at the University of Montana and co-author of Post-Cowboy Economics, the worth that someone places on his or her ability to go hunting, fishing, or wildlife watching is actually a type of “income” as important to Montana as the amount of money that person spends.

“These activities have a substantial public value that needs to be factored into any discussion of Montana’s economy and standard of living,” Barrett says.

Montana’s market niche
Such discussions may be forthcoming. Montana’s valuable fish and wildlife resources appear to be increasingly important to the state’s economic future. Though extractive industries like mining and logging remain essential elements of Montana’s economy, they have been in decline for decades. Meanwhile, interest in the state’s elk, trout, deer, and other critters continues to grow. Fish- and wildlife-related expenditures grew 50 percent between 1996 and 2001, reflecting a booming market in those activities. What’s more, hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching are nonpolluting, growth industries that use renewable natural resources, says John Gibson, president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. They also have helped create for Montana what is known in business as a market niche.

“The unique conditions we have here—wilderness areas, clean rivers, record numbers of elk and deer—these are not what you see in Chicago or Los Angeles,” Gibson notes. “Our wonderful fish and wildlife resources are a large part of what makes this state so attractive.”
Such marketable amenities didn’t happen by accident, however. The state has built a national reputation for progressively managing its fish and wildlife to provide high-quality angling and hunting experiences for residents and visitors alike. For example, since it stopped stocking trout in rivers in 1974 and began managing for wild trout, Montana has become the preeminent destination for fly anglers from throughout the country. As Steve Moyer, vice-president for conservation programs at Virginia-based Trout Unlimited, notes, “there’s just no question that discriminating anglers out here put a premium on fishing for Montana’s wild fish. States that stock hatchery fish just don’t compare.”

What attracts outsiders to fish and hunt in Montana may also convince them to move here—and bring their businesses along. After all, says Barrett, taxes aren’t the only consideration a business owner makes when deciding where to relocate. “You have to factor in how much these activities contribute in creating an environment where people want to do business,” he says. “For example, look at all the doctors in Livingston, and at how we’ve now got this major medical industry in Billings that seems to center on the high-quality trout fishing the area offers. Those doctors could be making more elsewhere, but they are electing to live in Montana.”

Driving the enterprise
Key to Montana’s appeal—and the resultant spending—is a strong base of fish and wildlife. Healthy fish and wildlife habitat, say conservation leaders, support the nation’s entire hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching industry. “Clean water and healthy populations of fish and wildlife are to hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching what electricity is to the computer industry,” says Roger Holmes, past president of the International Associ-ation of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. “They drive the entire enterprise.”

That’s not just theory, either, says C. B. Schantz, co-owner of Red Rock Sporting Goods in Miles City. “If you looked at all the cafes and stores in this area that rely on hunting and fishing you’d know there’s a direct relation between fish and wildlife populations and the businesses around here,” Schantz says.

Elk and trout are two notable examples of how that relationship has helped local Montana economies. According to Don Laubach, owner of the legendary Town Cafe, Motel, Lounge and Gift Shop in Gardiner, there weren’t many elk around the area when he bought his operation in 1965. “The town pretty much closed down in winter back then,” he says. But since the late 1970s, when FWP began a late-season hunt to thin burgeoning numbers of elk leaving Yellowstone National Park each January, he has been able to keep his business open throughout the winter, employing 20 people full-time.

Similarly, Bailey’s fly shop business has grown over the past 30 years as the waters in the nearby Yellowstone River have grown cleaner and the trout populations healthier. “When I was a kid,” Bailey says, “you couldn’t even fish east of Livingston because of the water pollution coming out of town. Now there’s great fishing almost to Billings.”

On the flip side, however, a decline in fish or wildlife populations can hurt local businesses. For example, some outfitters near Yellowstone National Park say a recent decline in local elk numbers—due, they maintain, to grizzlies and wolves—has hurt business. And in the mid-1990s, after reports of whirling disease in the Madison River hit the national sporting press, Glenn Gallentine watched his trout fishing trade fall off by 20 to 30 percent per year. “It was a tough time in Ennis,” says the manager of Tackle Shop Outfitters, one of two trout shops in the small tourist town. “And it wasn’t just us. Grocery stores, cafes, motels—they were all hurting.”
Gallentine says the trout populations and the largely fishing-based tourism trade have since bounced back, but the scare left deep financial scars in the community.

Habitat and management are essential
Though diseases are a grave concern, the biggest threat to fish and wildlife populations is habitat loss and mismanagement.

That’s why state conservation officials, while welcoming reports of Montana’s hunting and fishing bull market, point out that all this spending and earning would not take place without effective fish and wildlife management.

By monitoring populations, protecting habitat, and improving access, say agency officials, FWP has been able to sustain the state’s fish and wildlife populations and provide the recreation worth so much to Montana’s economy. The big question now is: For how much longer?

“The pressures on Montana’s fish and wildlife resources, which fuel the spending, goes up each year,” says Hagener. Improved gear makes hunters and anglers increasingly more effective. Development can eat away at habitat that fish and wildlife need to survive. Landowners increasingly post “No Hunting” signs.

“It’s essential that we keep up with that pressure and continue to scientifically manage fish and wildlife, conserve habitat, and provide access,” Hagener adds. “Otherwise, there will come a point where the fish and wildlife resource won’t be able to keep up with the public demand for it.”

Which could mean more than just a loss of revenue. Though hunting and fishing add income to the economy, the real worth of these activities may go beyond what can be measured on a federal tax form.

“When you think about it,” says Schantz, the Miles City sports store owner, “Montana doesn’t have much to keep young people here. At least now they grow up with some of the best hunting, fishing, and hiking in the world, so maybe they’ll want to stay even though the jobs don’t pay well. But if something ever happened to the fish and wildlife, you’d have to ask yourself:
Why else would a kid want to stay in Montana?”Bear bullet

Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors.