Both residents and nonresidents are feeling the pain as Montana attracts
increasing numbers of out-of-state hunters, anglers, and other recreationists.
This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
For more than a decade, Ross Jenkins would spend summers dreaming of his upcoming hunt in southeastern Montana. Come October, the Ohio fireman and other family members would drive 1,400 miles to Broadus, where they camped on private land and hunted deer. A trip highlight was a perch fry put on by the Buckeye hunters for the Montana ranchers who welcomed them each fall.
“We just loved coming to Montana,” says Jenkins, who’s been hunting here since 1989.
Not anymore. “When I saw that the price [for a nonresident combination hunting license] had gone up to $638 this year, that was the final nail in the coffin,” Jenkins explains. “I’m not a rich man, and what Montana is saying to people like me is that we’re not welcome.”
Steve Ortez feels unwelcome too, but for entirely different reasons. The Great Falls construction worker says access to pheasant spots he’s been hunting since a teen has dried up. Doors once open are now closed. “Leased land” signs are popping up more frequently. “It used to be you could go up to a landowner’s house, knock on the door, and nine out of ten times get permission to hunt,” Ortez says. “Now you go up and find out he’s leased it to a bunch of out-of-staters, and us local guys are just out of luck.”
Both Jenkins and Ortez are feeling the pain of a problem that shows no signs of relenting. In growing numbers, nonresidents are flocking to the Treasure State to hunt, fish, raft, hike, and otherwise enjoy the natural splendor that makes Montana famous. The growing influx of out-of-staters generates millions of dollars in revenue for the financially strapped state, but it also causes crowding and loss of access and is partly responsible for increasing nonresident hunting license fees. Unfortunately, easy solutions to the problem are as rare as a solitary midsummer float down the Clark Fork River.
As traditional extractive industries such as mining and forestry languish, Montana increasingly relies on tourism to bolster its economy. In 2001, 9.6 million people visited Montana, up more than 2 million from 1991. As anyone who spends time outdoors can attest, a share of that growth occurred on the state’s hunting lands and fishing rivers. From 1990 to 2000, applications for nonresident combination hunting licenses grew over 50 percent, from 29,000 to 45,000, while out-of-state fishing licenses climbed 25 percent during that time, from 160,000 to 200,000.
The problem with more visitors, even in a state as big as Montana, is that they show up where regulars—resident and otherwise—have grown accustomed to solitude. That’s been the case on southwestern Montana’s Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers. Long known by locals for their phenomenal trout fishing, the rivers were “discovered” by the sporting press in the 1980s and 1990s. Word quickly spread nationwide. Soon the waters were inundated with drift boats, which allowed the mostly nonresident angler clientele to cover miles of water in search of prime riffles and runs. From 1995 to 1997, angling pressure on the Beaverhead more than doubled. “It got to the point,” says Dick Oswald, FWP fisheries biologist at Dillon, “that on many days you’d float along and at every popular pool or riffle there would be at least two or three guys standing there, fishing away.”
Other rivers have also been flooded with anglers, many arriving from distant locales. Anglers, mainly locals, complain of overcrowding on the Blackfoot, the upper Yellowstone, the Missouri below Holter Dam, and, worst of all, the upper Bighorn. “We call it ‘combat fishing,’” says Dr. William Smoot of Bozeman, who has been fishing the storied trout river for 30 years. “I’ve seen as many as 40 boats at one time in the first quarter-mile of the river.”
And it’s not just rivers. Hunters—resident and nonresident—point to overcrowded campsites and hunting lands, particularly those where pheasants frequent. “It was just getting out of control,” says Stan Meyer, chairman of the FWP Commission from 1994 to 1998, of public upland hunting land overuse by out-of-staters in the early 1990s. “There’d be three or four guys camped out on a public area, with three or four dogs, and after a few days they’d just clean out the birds.” The crowded conditions and lack of pheasants, Meyer contends, were in part responsible for many resident hunters retiring from the sport. From 1980 to 2000, resident bird hunting licenses declined by 50 percent, while nonresident licenses more than doubled. “When we lose local hunters,” says Meyer, “we lose the moral commitment to supporting FWP, to supporting habitat and conservation.”
Granted, Montana residents too are leasing land, crowding parking areas, and clogging casting lanes. In fact, despite the notion that nonresidents are “overrunning” state hunting and fishing areas, out-of-staters make up only 43 percent of the total number of participants. But the perception among many Montana residents is that non-Montanans are the main problem.
How have state officials responded to the growth in nonresident recreational use? For many, it’s been with gratitude. The nearly 10 million travelers who visited Montana in 2001 spent $1.7 billion, making tourism one of the state’s most lucrative industries, second only to agriculture. According to the Montana Department of Commerce, nonresident travel directly and indirectly supports 32,000 jobs. “Tourism is a hugely significant factor in the state,” says Betsy Baumgart, administrator of the Commerce Department’s Montana Promotion Division.
Of all state agencies, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) benefits most from the Ohio trout angler and Iowa elk hunter who show up each year. “More than two-thirds of our budget comes from nonresident hunting and fishing fees,” says Chris Smith, Montana FWP chief of staff. “Until this year, our Block Management hunter access program was funded entirely by nonresident licenses. We need both resident and nonresident license fees to keep this agency afloat.”
And the state continues to find ways to derive additional revenue from tourists. A lodging tax imposed in 1987 generates funds used for touting the state’s charms in major markets such as Seattle, and for small Montana communities to promote themselves. Proposals at the recent special legislative session included increasing the lodging tax and adding new tourist taxes.
As is the case with states nationwide, Montana charges nonresidents more for fishing and hunting licenses than it does those who live here. And it raised non-resident fees (though not resident ones) beginning with the 2002 season. A hunter living in Shelby who wants to buy a conservation license (elk, deer, upland game birds, and fishing) pays only $54, while a Milwaukee hunter must now pay $638.
FWP officials point out that the recent nonresident fee increase puts Montana in line with nonresident license fees charged in nearby states. But that doesn’t make it fair, say nonresidents, who argue that nonresident rates in all western states continue to be far too high.
Unfortunately for Montana’s nonresident hunters and anglers, there’s not much they can do about it. They don’t vote here. And as long as demand for Montana licenses stays high, the state can continue to raise nonresident fees.
Although that additional revenue from nonresidents helps keep resident license fees low, it’s still not enough to satisfy many Montana hunters and anglers, who maintain that nonresidents rob them of local hunting and fishing opportunities. “This is a big state,” says Ortez, “and there’s no reason local people should have to ‘take a number’ when it comes to hunting and fishing here.”
State officials are listening. For years Montana has restricted nonresidents to just 10 percent of available elk, antelope, and other big game permits and special licenses and has capped the number of nonresident hunting licenses available. Since 2000, the state has reserved the first weekend of Montana’s 65-day pheasant hunting season for residents only.
Such restrictions could tighten further, especially on premier trout waters. Resident angler displeasure over crowding on the Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers grew so bad that, beginning in 2001, the FWP Commission reserved boat fishing for residents only on certain stretches during weekends.
Though such restrictions may appease residents, Montana officials know they can lean on visitors only so much. Though nonresident demand for licenses remains high, despite the price increase, it could eventually decline, as it did in Colorado recently following an 80 percent jump in nonresident elk license fees. “Tourism creates thousands of jobs in Montana,” says Smith, the FWP chief of staff. “I certainly understand the concerns of resident hunters and anglers, but we can’t afford to be antagonistic to nonresidents when we increasingly rely on them for our economy.”
And thus the dilemma: Many Montanans want to see more tourism dollars, but not more tourists. Unfortunately, notes Tom Power, economics professor at the University of Montana, the two come firmly attached. “Any form of economic development, whether it’s tourism or industry, will bring more people,” Power says. “If you don’t want the congestion, you can’t have the increase in living standards.”
Why has Montana become such a popular destination for America’s hook-and-bullet crowd? It could simply be a matter of demand chasing supply. Montana still has lots of land, fish, and wildlife available for relatively little money, even considering the recent nonresident license fee hike. Nationwide, hunters and anglers have more disposable income and more time to spend it. Where fishing the Madison River or hunting elk might once have been the trip of a lifetime for out-of-staters, today many make such outings part of their yearly recreational plans.
Mike Gurnett, FWP videographer and one-time fishing guide, contends that the problem is not so much crowding but what he believes is a growing lack of common courtesy among many resident and nonresident hunters and anglers. “You see a lot more rudeness on a river these days,” Gurnett says, “and I think it’s that, more than anything, that ticks people off.”
If true, such changes in behavior may be due to a changing culture—one in which increasingly urbanized people are less reliant on each other and thus have less need for hospitality, manners, and other customs necessary in closely knit rural communities.
Regardless of the cause, it appears that Montana has no monopoly on conflicts
over limited natural recreational lands and opportunities. “This is
a national issue,” says Tom Palmer, head of FWP’s information
bureau. “I hear about it from other agencies all the time, about pressure
on beaches in Connecticut and California, pheasant hunting in South Dakota,
in Louisiana. If a state has something precious, the residents are making sure some of it is reserved for them to enjoy.”
Problems in other states in turn send those residents scurrying to places less trammeled. “I travel around the U.S. a lot,” says John Barsness, an outdoors writer living in Townsend, “and I think one reason for what we’re seeing in Montana is that hunting has been screwed up in other states, which are overpopulated and oversuburbanized. It’s the fault of humans in general who all want their little piece of the country and then sprawl out over the countryside.”
For its part, Montana FWP has tried to manage conflicts that come from more nonresident use. Its Block Management and Fishing Access Site programs are examples of how the agency provides more hunting and fishing access to both in- and out-of-staters. The recent hiring of a river recreation specialist who will help manage user conflicts indicates how seriously the agency takes this growing issue. FWP has also instituted a permit lottery system that successfully regulates crowding on the popular-yet-pristine Smith River in central Montana. And FWP director Jeff Hagener says that the agency is considering a small hike in resident license fees in the near future that could reduce FWP’s reliance on nonresident fees and provide additional funds to address crowding and access problems.
But certain socio-economic forces are beyond the agency’s purview. Until Montana comes up with its own Silicon Valley or discovers diamonds in the Little Belt Mountains, its economy will continue to depend increasingly on tourist dollars. As for the issue of hunting lands being leased by wealthy outsiders, Meyers notes that “landowners have every right to lease their land, and hunters—both resident and nonresident—have every right to pay to hunt there. So I really don’t think there is a clear-cut solution for this.”
But maybe it’s not inevitable that Montana becomes a big New Jersey with mountains. Maybe FWP and other agencies can find other innovative ways to manage both resident and nonresident recreational growth, just as it led the nation in devising legislation during the 1970s that protected the environment without undue burdens to industry.
“I think we can find ways for residents and nonresidents to share the resource,” says Smith, “but it won’t come easy. People in- and out-of-state will need to change their attitudes and expectations. And probably most important, there will have to be more tolerance on both sides.”
Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors.
FWP searches for solutions
“You can see more of these types of crowding situations on the horizon,” says FWP chief of staff Chris Smith. “Unless we find ways to manage recreational use, it’s only going to get worse.”
Often in the center of storms raging over access and crowding, FWP has taken several steps over the years to find fair and sensible ways to balance the rights of resident and nonresident hunters and anglers:
Provided more hunting and fishing access for residents and nonresidents through its Block Management and Fishing Access Site programs
Recently hired a river recreation specialist who will help manage user conflicts
Instituted a permit lottery system to regulate crowding on the Smith River
Reserved the first weekend of the 65-day pheasant hunting season for resident hunters only
Instituted an access rule on the Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers that distributes angling and floating pressure
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