The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission hopes the Montana Legislature will reconsider the work a citizens group produced on behalf of sportsmen and landowners that shows Montana hunters are willing pay for more hunting access to private lands.
"We have failed to adequately communicate to the Legislature how strongly we feel and how supportive the state's hunters and landowners are when it comes to funding hunting access," said FWP Commission Chairman Stan Meyer of Great Falls. "The Private Land/Public Wildlife Advisory Council, which has been working on these issues for more than five years, has recommended that the Block Management Program be allowed to grow by one-third. The group also found that residents are ready to pay their fair share for more access to private lands with a hunting-license fee increase. We should have done a better job of getting that message to the Legislature."
Senate Bill 338 sought to extend and expand the state's Block Management Program, which compensates landowners for allowing free public hunting. The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Ken Mesaros, followed the consensus recommendations of the Private Land/Public Wildlife Advisory Council and would have added resident dollars and increased the number of nonresident dollars that goes into the popular program. Resident hunters comprise more than 80 percent of the total hunter-day use on Block Management areas.
Last week, however, the Montana House of Representatives on an 88-12 vote, passed an amended version of the bill that continues the Block Management Program through 2005, but does not allow any resident hunting fees to be increased to expand the program.
The past president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, Allan Rollo of Great Falls, joined the FWP Commission by saying the Legislature should reconsider the bill. "People who understand the importance of hunting and the need to open up and expand the Block Management Program support the efforts of Montanans paying their share for access," Rollo said. "This will benefit residents and we're willing to pay for a portion of the Block Management Program"
Gov. Marc Racicot created the Private Land/Public Wildlife Advisory Council in 1993 to improve relations between landowners and state's hunters and other outdoor recreationists. In 1995 the council supported--and the Montana Legislature passed--legislation to fund a hunting access program through the sale of nonresident hunting licenses available to the clients of Montana outfitters.
The program generates more than $3 million every year from nonresidents who hunt with outfitters. The funding has provided for a public hunting access program that now encompasses more than 7.5 million acres of land for Montana's sportsmen and women. Currently, nonresident hunters provide 100 percent of funding for Block Management.
SB338 originally provided an additional $1.5 million for Block Management's expansion. Resident hunters would provide 40 percent of the additional funding by paying $4 more for upland gamebird licenses and $1 more for a hunting conservation license. Nonresident hunters would pay an additional $55 for upland gamebird licenses and $5 more for a hunting conservation license.
"Block Management is hugely successful, but its success has out paced our ability to provide for the demand by hunters and landowners. We have some 300 landowners waiting to enroll, but we simply can't meet the current demand," said FWP Commissioner David Simpson of Hardin. "The hunters I and other commissioners talk to want more access and are willing to see their hunting fees raised to open more private land."