Hunting along the Rocky Mountain Front proves recession-proof

Michael Babcock, Great Falls Tribune

The Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front said that based on economic indicators from recent Fish, Wildlife & Parks studies of hunting's impact, the Front needs further legislative protection.

Five Montana sportsmen said in a teleconference call Tuesday that the hunting industry is a rare economic bright spot in the current recession, and called the Front a poster child of this sustainable economic engine.

"The remarkable thing we are seeing here is stability," said Randy Newberg, an accountant and host of the hunting television series "On Your Own Adventures."

"The numbers along the Front show public land hunting has not been as susceptible to the broader economic challenges facing other industries during the recent recession," he said.

The coalition cited five years of hunting data collected by FWP regarding hunting on the Front. The numbers say that during 2006, sportsmen hunting along the Front spent $9.8 million; which grew to $10.4 million in 2008 — in the middle of the recession; and fell slightly in 2010, to $10.1 million.

"Hunting is annually renewable," said Stoney Burke of Choteau. "It is not boom and bust. It is a huge economic stimulus for these little communities along the Front."

FWP uses a formula based on the Consumer Price Index to give what it called a conservative estimate of the strength of the industry based on total hunting days throughout the year. No other expenditure data from other outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, summer outfitting or fishing were included in the analysis.

According to the data, most hunters visit the Front for upland game birds, deer and elk, while a smaller number of sportsmen hunt antelope, big horn sheep, moose and mountain goats in the area.

FWP counted more than 90,000 hunter days on hunting districts along the Front in 2010, and reported that hunters spent more than $4 million hunting upland game birds, and more than $5 million hunting deer and elk.

"That is money that goes to local businesses — bars, restaurants and gas stations," Newberg said. "The majority — 87 percent of those days — are from resident hunters; 54 percent of the revenue is from residents.

"Keeping that intact for hunting and fishing is not just an issue of the personal soul, it makes financial sense, too," he said. "We call it the second harvest season. In the fall, hunters are spending a lot of money."

"This recession did have an impact on the Rocky Mountain Front, but the bright spot is that the hunting economy was largely unaffected, and that makes hunting that much more important to communities on the Front," said Ryan Busse, a hunter and wildlife advocate.

The proposed Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would add 70,000 acres to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas, and would create a "conservation management area," which Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Ben Lamb referred to as a "snapshot in time — a management regime that respects all uses."

He said the declaration would keep motorized trails going, keep quiet trails intact, and continue to allow "post and pole use. You can still use a chain saw on the CMA," Lamb said. "It also keeps the outfitters in business. The (U.S.) Forest Service, in fact, would increase the number of outfitter-use days."

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act also includes a weed component, which would coordinate weed control efforts along the Front.

"The aim is to codify management practices in existence now, and ensure that the Front as we know it now — both private and public management practices — are there for generations," Busse said.

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act is currently just a proposal, Busse said.

"We hope our congressional delegation will pick it up and introduce it, but we don't have a firm commitment from anyone," he added.

"For this to be a homegrown proposal, as it is, you have to realize we are looking for middle ground," Brady area farmer and conservationist Joe Perry said. "There are some people who would have preferred this entire area all be wilderness, and some would prefer not another acre."

Burke compared preservation of the Rocky Mountain Front with preservation of Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.

"If you put it to public vote, people would say, 'thank God we didn't tear this up and ruin the habitat and ruin the vistas," he said.