By MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA - A House committee Tuesday night approved a bill using sportsmen license fees to pay elk ranchers about $20 million over the next four years to phase out their operations.
House Bill 759, passed 11-5 by the Agriculture Committee, is a tamed-down version of earlier legislation that would have overturned a voter-approved initiative designed to eliminate the game farm industry.
Rep. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, said his bill was hammered out over the past few weeks as a ''reasonable compromise'' to pay elk ranchers - mostly with money gathered from hunting and fishing license sales - and still phase out game farms.
''In the end, game farms in Montana would be eliminated,'' Peterson said.
Before approving the measure, the committee rejected on a tie vote a change that would have reduced the amount of state payments to game farm operators based on what they charge customers to shoot their animals.
Without that addition to the bill, it will be too expensive to pass the House, some panel members warned.
Peterson said he realizes a debate will rage over the price tag, but called the compensation rates fair.
The issue of game farms has been hotly debated for years and came to a head with passage of Initiative 143 in 2000.
The law, seen as a means to eliminate the industry in Montana, prohibits the licensing of new game farm operations, expansions of existing game farms or the transfer of licenses. It also prohibits fee shooting of captive animals.
Some hunters worry that game farms will spread chronic wasting disease, an incurable brain infection, to wild animals.
Ranchers said I-143 unfairly doomed their operations and essentially made their elk worthless.
Under Peterson's proposal, elk ranchers volunteering for a new program would get an upfront payment to compensate them for their original fencing costs. They would also get between $4,000 to $6,000 for each elk, which would become test animals for research.
Hunting and fishing license money would also help pay for research efforts and continued surveillance of CWD in the wild.
Opponents said it was ''absurd'' to pay the elk ranchers for a ''failed business model.''
They compared hunting penned elk on a game farm to other banned practices, such as cockfighting.
''It has nothing to do with private property rights and it has nothing to do with takings,'' said Jim Posewitz, a hunter from Helena. ''The state has a legitimate interest in promoting fair chase hunting when mandated by public vote or otherwise.''
Opposition came from the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, hunters and Trout Unlimited, which objected to fishing license money being used for a hunting issue.
Dale Burk, president of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, said a lawsuit filed by the elk ranchers that claims I-143 illegally ''took'' their property should be allowed to play out in court.
''There are no guarantees in any business, and the public should not have to pay the bill for an industry that was from the beginning an imposition on Montana,'' he said.
Elk ranchers said the legislation is needed to make sure they are fairly paid for their elk. They argued I-143 was pushed through by ''an outspoken minority of environmentalists.''
''I need to be justly compensated,'' said elk rancher Collette Neuman. ''Elk ranching was a profitable business before this.''