Just a week after 54 percent of Montana voters approved an initiative aimed at abolishing outfitter-sponsored nonresident hunting licenses, Rep.-elect Bill Harris, R-Mosby, submitted draft legislation to reinstate them.
Harris, owner of Fort Musselshell Outfitters, says he and fellow outfitters believe the debate over Initiative 161 deserves to be extended to the Legislature, which convenes next week.
"It was misdirected and misrepresented so bad that a large amount of people didn't realize what they were voting for," he says. "Secondly, I would say that [the initiative] goes against all principles of entrepreneurship and individuals' rights, and basic liberty, and freedom of jobs and business."
Specifically, Harris says voters didn't understand that nonresident licenses don't compete with in-state licenses. Regardless, he believes outfitters who for years depended on the state guaranteeing 5,500 outfitter-sponsored big game licenses will soon feel the economic consequences.
John Gibson, president of the Public Land/Water Access Association, one of the primary proponents of the initiative, asks, "Doesn't he believe what the voters said?"
"It isn't rocket science," Gibson says. "These guys were able to dictate who could legally hunt in the state of Montana. Our contention is there is only one entity that can do that, and that's Fish, Wildlife and Parks—not outfitters, not landowners, not sporting goods store owners or anybody else. Fish, Wildlife and Parks will dictate who can legally hunt with a fair and equitable random draw. That's it."
Gibson and other proponents of the initiative say it reverses what is essentially the commercialization of public wildlife.
But Harris says too much rides on the policy change for him to stand idly by, even if his bill appears to ignore a 26,000-plus-vote margin.
"If I have to be the lightning rod for [voters] to pay more attention and to actually have a civil debate about what we need to do to help each other here in Montana, then so be it," he says. "I'm not running for governor; I'm just a legislator trying to help the situation."