(Big Sky Connection) A package of bills in Helena is aimed at improving elk management in Montana. The six bills are bipartisan efforts from lawmakers, hunters and outfitters, and all have survived the Legislature's transmittal deadline outside their house of origin.
One is House Bill 635, which would set aside up to 15 percent of non-resident big game licenses for non-resident landowners so they can hunt on their own property.
Jim Vashro, president of Flathead Wildlife and a board member of the Montana Wildlife Federation, explained how usage is evolving and driving change.
"Montana has seen a real increase in hunting pressure by non-residents on publicly available land," Vashro pointed out. "This would move some segment of that hunting pressure onto private land, and ease up the competition on public land."
The measure had its first hearing in the Senate Thursday. The bill could remove more than 2,500 non-resident hunters from competing with Montanans on public lands. Some hunters and outfitters oppose it, saying it could reduce the number of big-game licenses available.
Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, said the bill is meant to entice owners of private land to open them to the public.
"Incentivizing landowners to participate in this can, in fact, open quite a bit of public access going forward," Minard contended.
Also in the package, House Bill 596 had its first Senate hearing Thursday. It provides some fixes to a popular incentive-based program passed in 2021, which also opens up private property to public hunting.
Minard noted the legislative package creates incremental benefits for elk management and lays the foundation for a good relationship between hunters and outfitters.
"It has been an absolute pleasure to be able to stand side-by-side with dedicated sportsmen from all aspects of the Montana sporting community, and move forward in a collaborative effort on things that we can agree on," Minard remarked.
The Montana Citizens Elk Management Coalition and Montana Outfitters and Guides Association developed the bills in early January during the "Elk Camp at the Capitol" event. It is the first legislative collaboration between hunters and outfitters in 15 years.