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Hunting leases spark debate
By RON TSCHIDA, Chronicle Staff Writer

Concerned about what it calls diminishing hunting opportunities on private land, the Montana Wildlife Federation recently announced a campaign to prohibit all "privatization or commercialization of wildlife or access to wildlife."

To the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, that sounds like a direct shot at its industry.
"MWF has declared war on your guided clients, Montana landowners and Montana guides and outfitters," MOGA executive director Russ Copeland said in a letter to licensed outfitters across the state.

In an interview Monday, Copeland said outfitters provide access to wildlife all the time, "whether you're floating down the river in a drift boat or heading into the backcountry with a pack string. When I take that at face value, it alarms us."

The Montana Wildlife Federation isn't out to wreck the outfitting business, said Craig Sharpe, the group's executive director.

"That's not the case at all," Sharpe said. "We recognize the value of public-land outfitters that are offering a service that is good and reliable to hunters."

But outfitters don't just work on public land; many of them lease private land.

And MWF opposes exclusive leasing, arguing it locks out the everyday hunter who can't afford outfitter fees, Sharpe said.

The disagreement is likely to play out over the next 10 months. Several key hunter-access programs, including the popular Block Management program, will expire in 2006 unless legislators act next year to extend them.

Block Management, a Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks program, pays landowners to allow public hunting access. More than 1,200 landowners enrolled nearly 9 million acres in 2003, according to FWP.

Sharpe called Block Management "a wonderful program" and said MWF supports its renewal.

But major funding for Block Management comes from higher fees nonresidents pay for a guaranteed-issue big game license. The buyers of those licenses must hunt with an outfitter. That's provided a guaranteed income to outfitters and has in turn fueled a great increase in exclusive leases, Sharpe said.

Copeland said he hears that all the time. "I have yet to see any data that's proved it," he said.

And the guaranteed-issue licenses are an important part of the entire access program, Copeland said.

"All of these things are tied together," he said.

The two agreed the the debate is likely to be vigorous, at least.

The next legislative session will be "crucial" for hunters, landowners and outfitters, Copeland said.

"I think we're headed for a train wreck here unless we look at some compromises," Sharpe said.

Ron Tschida is at

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