It was an awful end, complete with death throes, tantrums and not a little inconsolable sobbing.
But in the end–fittingly, on April Fools Day–the Montana Senate suffocated a bill that would have undone some hard repairs to archery elk hunting in the state. House Bill 361, which would have rolled back archery elk regulations to 2007 levels failed on a third reading and died on the Senate floor.
The bill has a long and sordid history, but essentially the legislature tried to make a political fix to an issue that has split rifle and archery elk hunters in the state for more than a decade. The issue is fairly technical, but ultimately it centers on the consequences of having unlimited permits to hunt elk with a bow. That’s how archery elk hunting in the popular Missouri River Breaks were managed for years–with unlimited permits–which meant that non-resident archers weren’t constrained by the 10 percent quota reserved for them in hunting districts managed with a specific numeric quota of permits.
The “dirty little secret” of the Missouri Breaks got out to hardcore bowhunters across the country, who basically learned that they didn’t need to go through the draw to get a bull tag every year in the string of units along Fort Peck Reservoir and the remote Missouri River in northeast and central Montana. And so they came, by the dozens at first, then the scores, and by the early part of this decade, by the hundreds, camping for weeks at a time at some of the most popular access points to the Breaks.
I watched this growth of hunting pressure first-hand, and finally opted to take my bow and hunt elsewhere. I’d rather have a lower chance of filling my tag in a lower-quality unit than to confront so many fellow archers in the field, to have my careful stalks blown by another hunter working in on the same herd.
I wasn’t alone. The issue became so bad that Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department decided to do something about it, and after meeting with all the stakeholders in the issue, the FWP Commission made the hard choice to limit permits in the Breaks and a variety of other hunting districts. And in the two years since they made the decision, the elk hunting in the Breaks has returned to the good old days, with far fewer hunters and far more enjoyable hunting experiences.
But the one group that was impaired by the change was Montana’s outfitters, and they have been working to overturn the commission’s decision for years. They finally had a chance–a very good chance–with House Bill 361. They wanted to get their guaranteed client base back, and I honestly can’t blame them. But those outfitted clients didn’t have to hunt the crowded public land that I did, and never saw the worst examples of crowding.
HB361 was a bad piece of public policy, not only because it would have overturned the judicious decision of a regulatory body–the FWP Commission–that had considered thousands of public comments in its decision–but because it was motivated by economics, more than biology or even social tolerance.
Plus, it was a shortsighted impulse. Because if HB361 passed, it’s not just non-resident hunters that we locals would have been contending with. We would have also been swarmed by archery elk hunters from western Montana, resident hunters displaced from their traditional general-tag areas by wolves.
If there’s such a groundswell of opposition to permits in the Breaks, then work the issue through the FWP Commission. That’s where decisions of this magnitude belong, not with the legislature, lobbied by outfitters and making decisions based on political expediency, not thoughtful deliberation.