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Condon outfitters fear I-135
will destroy their business


By BETH BRITTON
Community News Service
UM School of Journalism
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
October 22, 1998

It is autumn in Montana's high country, prime time for outfitters like Cinde Barthelmess and her husband Mike who have run Pine Hills Outfitters out of Condon for 16 years. If this were a normal year, their chief worry would be tracking game for their out-of-state hunting clients.

But there's a new fear in the air this season, a fear that the fate of the Barthelmess' business and that of Cinde Barthelmess' family rests in the hands of people she doesn't even know: the voters of Montana.

At issue is Initiative 136, a measure on the Nov. 3 statewide ballot that would, if approved, abolish a state policy that reserves 7,800 hunting licenses for out-of-state hunters who must hire Montana guides and outfitters. Nonresidents would still be guaranteed a license if they're willing to pay market rates for it, but they would no longer be required to hire an outfitter.

As Barthelmess sees it, that puts Montana's outfitters squarely in the bulls'eye.

"This scares us to death," says Barthelmess. "I-136 threatens our ability to have an income."

But on Montana's competitive hunting grounds, some resident hunters see themselves as the threatened species. Their ability to hunt, they say, is increasingly threatened by outfitters who use their quota of state-guaranteed licenses as a basis for acquiring exclusive rights to hunt on thousands of square miles of private Montana land.

Supporters of I-136, led by its author, Rep. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, say the measure will ensure fairness in hunting by decreasing the number of outfitters and putting resident hunters on a more equal footing in the negotiations with private landowners for hunting rights. Nonresidents would still be able to apply for higher-priced hunting licenses, and they could still choose to hire an outfitter to guide their hunt. But by ending the mandatory requirement that an outfitter be used, supporters say, all hunting interests will be equally balanced.

The initiative's foes, however, predict the measure will devastate Montana's outfitting industry. Moreover, they say, it would encourage wealthy out-of-state interests to form exclusive hunting clubs that could lease even more private land. The measure's critics also say the relationship between landowners, outfitters and sportsmen something the state government has worked to improve since 1993 would deteriorate.

Barthelmess says that virtually all of her business would be lost if I-136 passes. She says her clients could not afford the more expensive guaranteed licenses plus the services of an outfitter. Her clients, she adds, typically plan well in advance for their hunting trips and they like to know that when they hire an outfitter, a license awaits them.

The state limits the number of nonresident elk and deer licenses to 28,600, of which 7,800 are guaranteed. A nonresident guaranteed hunting license costs $835 this year, compared to the $478 fee for a nonguaranteed license. Because the price is based on the market, critics of I-136 say that the price of a guaranteed nonresident license could soon top $1,000.

"That money will go out of state or into Canada," she says. "I don't think Molnar has a concept about what he has started. He has no idea what he's talking about when it comes to fiscal impact."

Barthelmess says her outfitting business has already expanded to Canada to hedge against I-136's possible passage. It's not a move she relishes.

"When the government can take away your livelihood and control your ability to make a living in your chosen field, what do you do?" she asks. "Move away? Quit? Start something new?"

Molnar argues that outfitters will continue to have customers and make a living if they do a good job.

"Anyone can still use the services of an outfitter if they want to," he says. "We just don't want people forced to use their services."

And Molnar dismisses the notion that hunters residents and nonresidents alike - would be likely to find themselves locked out of more private land if I-136 passes.

"The outfitters' debate thus far has been one of intimidation and fear mongering," Molnar says. "They have come up with false, misleading, threatening statements, creating this huge bogey-man out of wealthy clubs coming in to lease. They are using fear tactics."

So much private land has been put off-limits, that thousands of would-be Montana hunters have given up the sport, he adds.

Molnar says he decided to turn to the initiative process because sportsmen have not won a political battle against the outfitters since 1976. "The initiative process is there for when the legislative process is controlled by special interest groups," Molnar says. "This is the voters' chance to be heard. They have to go to the ballot box to override the Legislature."

The outfitting industry, a small but well-organized and well-financed group, has asked for and received political privilege for too long, Molnar says. Supporters of I-136 are simply in search of equality, he adds.

"What they (the government) have been doing is not what the sportsmen want," Molnar says. "Let's return to a fair and equitable situation."

The debate between outfitters, landowners and hunters is nothing new. To ease tensions and encourage landowners to open more private land to hunting, Gov. Marc Racicot appointed an 18-member Private Lands/Public Wildlife Advisory Council in 1993. After two years of study, the council developed a program that compensates participating landowners for any damages caused by hunters they allow on their property.

Money for the program came not from Montanans, but from nonresident, outfitter-bound hunters purchasing the higher-priced guaranteed licenses. Almost $3 million is generated each year by the program, and the money has been used to open 7.5 million acres of land under the Block Management Program, a program through which the state negotiates and compensates private landowners who agree to open their lands to Montana's hunters.

I-136, Racicot says, threatens to unravel that progress.

"The real losers, if I-136 passes, will be the sportsmen and women of Montana," Racicot said in a statement released Oct. 8. "To put it plainly, passage of I-136 is not in the best interest of Montana's sportsmen and women."

But supporters of I-136 say that the funding for the Block Management Program need not be affected by the passage of I-136. Molnar says I-136 would increase the price of the nonresident licenses because more hunters will be competing for them, and that money will still be used to benefit recreational programs.

It's not that simple, says Rep. Emily Swanson, D-Bozeman, a member of the Private Lands/Public Wildlife Advisory Council. She says I-136 throws a wrench into the state's ongoing negotiations with private landowners.

"I-136 doesn't solve the problem," she says. "It disrupts the negotiation process with a one-sided approach."

Swanson says I-136 will not change the fact that many landowners will continue to lease their land and larger outfitters will continue to book hunts.

"Landowners won't automatically open their land to the public," she says. "It's an economic decision, and if a landowner makes the decision to lease to an outfitter, then that is his right."

Jean Johnson, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, agrees and calls the council's 1995 program a "minor miracle" because 18 people from various camps based its five-year plan on consensus and compromise.

"Brad Molnar doesn't believe in consensus or compromise - he will get it by force," she says.

Nothing trips Montanans' triggers like changes to the state's hunting policy, and as the days to the election dwindle, Montanans can expect both friends and foes of I-136 to redouble their efforts to influence voters, particularly those who remain undecided.

According to a September Lee Newspapers poll, 31 percent of voters were found to be undecided on the issue, and the number of those supporting and opposing I-136 were virtually the same.

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