Kurt Kephart says during his 36 years tracking big game in Montana, accessibility to prime hunting grounds has significantly dwindled.
"It's just a totally different attitude from what it was 35 years or so ago," he says.
The problem became more acute in 1995, Kephart claims, when the Montana Legislature passed a law securing licenses for outfitters, who then often supply them to well-heeled clients. More than that, Kephart says outfitters lease prime hunting grounds from private landowners, making it even tougher for the average person to compete for access.
That's why the Billings contractor, through his advocacy group Montana Public Wildlife, is gathering signatures ahead of a June 18 deadline to place Initiative 161 on November's ballot. The measure would abolish outfitter-sponsored nonresident licenses and nix the requirement that licensed outfitters supervise hunts conducted by out-of-state clients. It would also increase the cost of a nonresident big game license 43 percent and a combination deer license by 61 percent.
None of that, of course, sits well with outfitters. They say raising fees will spook out-of-state hunters and, in turn, decimate Montana's outfitting industry, which generates $167 million in economic activity annually.
"Why do you want to destabilize that?" asks Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.
Kephart maintains higher fees will benefit Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Block Management Program, which leases private land and makes it available to the hunting public. But Minard says upping license costs will decrease demand and, in turn, strain the Block Program.
"That would be catastrophic," Minard says. "From our point of view, the issue is about preserving the hunting heritage of the state of Montana."
Critics of I-161 allege Montana Public Wildlife signature gatherers are breaking the rules. In fact, the Montana Secretary of State's Office has received 16 formal complaint forms alleging election law violations. Those complaints have not been verified and are currently under review.
Kephart calls the allegations bogus, and says he's willing to take the heat if it means changing what he sees as inequities.
"I just felt compelled," he says, "to try to change it."