SPOKANE — Fewer out-of-state hunters are traveling to Idaho and Montana in search of deer and elk, costing fish and game agencies millions of dollars in fees.
The Spokesman-Review reported Thursday that weather, wolves, politics and the economy are depressing the number of out-of-state hunters who would normally be flocking to the two states. Nonresidents pay up to 15 times more than residents for the privilege to hunt big game.
Hardest hit are rural towns where nonresident hunters book motel rooms, eat at restaurants and support numerous other businesses.
But losses are huge in state 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, said Craig Wiedmeier, license division manager.
That amounted to a 4.5 percent drop in the department’s $77 million annual 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 license 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 $3.36 million shortfall, 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,” he said.
Some of the factors that have led to the decline include the recent recession, a harsh winter weather that hammered Idaho elk herds as well as Montana deer and antelope, and rumors spreading through hunting communities that growing numbers of wolves were ravaging deer and elk populations.
Politics also played a role as Idaho lawmakers and Montana voters raised nonresident hunting fees.
In 2009, Idaho lawmakers raised nonresident deer tags from $259 to $302 and bumped the elk tag from $373 to $417.
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.
And officials remain hopeful for an uptick over the rest of the season.
“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.”