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FWP proposes hunting, fishing license fee hikes
By SCOTT McMILLION ,Chronicle Staff Writer

Hunters and anglers should prepare to open their wallets wider and pay more for licenses, according to a proposal from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Almost every kind of fishing and hunting license would become more expensive, under the proposal, with some licenses more than doubling.
An elk tag would climb from $16 to $25, under the proposal.

An upland bird permit would soar to $20 from $6.

Antelope tags would sprint from $11 to $25.

Bighorn sheep, mountain goats and moose tags all would double, from $75 to $150.

FWP unveiled the proposal Tuesday. If the Montana Legislature approves it next winter, it will be the first increase in resident hunting and fishing fees in a decade.

Nonresident license fees were last raised in 2001.

License fees provide 57 percent of FWP's $70 million total budget. Without the increases, director Jeff Hagener said in a press release, the agency will generate $3 million less than it needs by 2009 and will face a $14.5 million budget shortfall by 2011.

If the $4.6 million annual increase in fees isn't approved, programs must be cut, Hagener added.

However, the raises could meet some strong resistance in the 2005 Legislature, according to Rep. Joe Balyeat, R-Belgrade. He is a former chairman of the House Fish and Game Committee and is now running for the Montana Senate.

"My initial reaction is I don't think the Legislature will go along with it," he said Tuesday. Lawmakers have a history of being "very resistant to hiking fees."

Balyeat, an accountant and an avid hunter, said he fears some people will quit hunting if fees rise too high. If that happens, he said, numbers shrink and hunters risk "becoming a political minority that starts getting kicked around by anti-hunters."

Randy Newberg, president of the Headwaters Fish and Game Association in Bozeman, said he, too, hopes nobody gets priced out of a day in the field.

But he also said he supports the fee increases and noted that licenses are a small proportion of what people spend to pursue fish and game.

For instance, elk licenses would rise to $25, but that is less than a tank of gas in most large vehicles, Newberg noted.

And hunters and anglers often spend large sums on gear associated with the sport.

"Some people have an $8,000 ATV, or a $20,000 fishing boat, or a $1,000 rifle," he said.

That makes the cost of a license a small percentage of overall costs, he said.

Newberg agreed that the Legislature has traditionally been reluctant to approve license fee increases "but we can't expect to maintain the quality we have in Montana without having at least a modest fee."

The proposed new fees would be pretty close to what Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho now charge, FWP said.

Only for bighorn sheep would the Montana rates -- at $150 -- be higher than the $137 for the average of those three states.

"I hunt in every state in the West," Newberg said. "People laugh at me when I tell them how low our fees are."

Montana's current resident $16 elk license is the lowest in Western North America. The average is $72.

The proposal also calls for smaller increases for seniors, the disabled and for youth.

For instance, youth sportsman licenses, good up to age 17, would rise only $5 from the current $25. That allows a young hunter to fish and hunt elk, deer and upland birds.

If approved, the fees would go into effect in March 2006.

FWP plans to hold a series of public meetings around the state to outline its proposal.

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