Weather, wolves, politics and the economy are slamming a quadruple whammy on the budgets of fish and game agencies in Idaho and Montana.
Nonresidents are no longer clamoring for the quota of permits the states offer for their fabled deer and elk hunts despite the standout hunting opportunities.
Nonresidents are cash cows for state budgets. Just as they boost university tuition revenues, nonresidents pay up to 15 times more than residents for the privilege to hunt elk.
While some locals welcome less competition in their favorite hunting areas, local economies are feeling the pain, too. Hardest hit are rural towns where nonresident hunters book motel rooms, eat at restaurants and support numerous other businesses with out-of-area dollars.
Losses are huge in license revenue alone.
The Idaho Fish and Game Department watched $3.5 million in license revenue vaporize last year because it could not sell all of its allotted nonresident deer and elk tags, according to Craig Wiedmeier, license division manager.
That amounts to a 4.5 percent divot in the department’s already strapped $77 million annual operating budget, which is funded almost entirely by hunting and fishing license fees.
Idaho’s sales of nonresident deer and elk tags have steadily declined each year since 2008. The trend apparently hasn’t bottomed out.
Last year, sales of nonresident Idaho deer tags were down 22 percent from 2010 and elk tag sales were down 23 percent, Wiedmeier said.
The number of tags sold this year is down about 18 percent from August 2011.
Montana is hurting, too. For the second time in 30 years, the state has a surplus of nonresident big-game combo licenses – tags that used to sell out by March 15.
At last count, Montana was still holding 795 unsold big-game combo licenses (from a 17,000 quota), 1,935 elk combo licenses and 1,921 deer combo licenses.
That amounts to a whopping $3.36 million shortfall at this point, although the state is banking on selling more tags in the next two months.
“We normally get a spike in nonresident sales in September and even October, especially from Washington state,” said Ron Aasheim, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman in Helena.
“But we’re still concerned. We’re talking about a lot of money.”
Before 2008, Idaho and Montana enjoyed high demand for their quotas of nonresident deer and elk tags. Sell-outs were the norm until the following occurred in the following two years:
• Wall Street and the mortgage banking industry tanked the nation’s economy.
• Winter weather hammered Idaho elk herds as well as Montana deer and antelope.
• Word of wolves ravaging deer and elk populations – sometimes exaggerated, sometimes not – spread through hunting communities.
• Politics compounded revenue problems by ignoring the economic climate.
Despite warnings from fish and game officials, Idaho’s legislature and Montana’s voters raised nonresident license fees, asking out-of-staters to pay more for less.
In 2009, Idaho lawmakers raised nonresident deer tags from $259 to $302 and bumped the elk tag from $373 to $417.
Fish and Game officials confirmed their assumptions about declining license sales in a 2009 survey of nonresident hunters, many of whom indicated the economy, fee increases and wolf impacts played into their decisions to forego hunting in Idaho.
Montana voters created even more economic heartburn for their wildlife agency and local economies by approving an initiative that took a swipe at guides who were tying up hunting ground.
Initiative 161 eliminated outfitter sponsored big-game licenses that guaranteed big-spending nonresidents a chance to hunt in Montana. The outfitter combo big- game tags that sold for $1,250 helped finance the state’s popular Block Management program that gives all hunters access to private land.
The Montana initiative also significantly raised prices of the nonresident big-game combination license from $643 to $944, the elk combo from $593 to $794 and the deer combo from $343 to $561.
Meanwhile, both states are trying to get out the message that they still have tremendous hunting opportunities.
For example, despite the impact of weather and wolves, Montana wildlife officials say elk populations in 70 percent of the state’s hunting units are at or above management objectives.
“In this economy, buying patterns have changed,” Idaho’s Wiedmeier said. “A lot more hunters wait to the last minute before making the decision to buy a license. It’s like they know they want to hunt in Idaho, but they want to be sure they can make it.”