Staying active in the public-lands fight.
As we roll into winter, Montanans are preparing for the 2019 Legislature. That means that once again, every hunter, angler, hiker, biker, backpacker, wildlife-watcher, and anyone else who values our public lands, waters, and the abundant fish and wildlife found on them needs to get engaged. As the saying goes, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.
The Montana Wildlife Federation will be at the Capitol as it has for decades to represent wildlife, wildlife habitat, and public access to our public-trust resources. We will be using numerous tools to help Montanans make their voices heard and engage legislators on key bills and budget measures.
As a top priority, MWF and a coalition of conservation organizations will continue to stand up to any efforts to transfer federal public lands to the state. Even though this issue is wildly unpopular with Montanans, a small group of politicians keeps pushing the idea. We’ve been there consistently to point out that this plan would be a budget-buster for the state, would run counter to multiple-use management of federal lands, and ultimately would lead to a large-scale sell-off. Look for a large public-lands rally in early January, when people from across Montana can pack the Capitol and stand up for our federal public lands.
Looking ahead to wildlife issues, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) is going into this session in sound financial shape. That’s largely the result of the 2015 bill that revamped our hunting and fishing licenses, a product of a cooperative group that spent over a year looking at our licensing system and worked to standardize free and reduced-priced licenses. The measures helped address the $4.5 million hole in FWP’s budget that free and discounted licenses helped create. In addition, FWP has been selling out of non-resident big-game licenses, the first time in several years. That helps bring revenue into the agency and shore up its financial future.
Hunters and anglers will have several issues to monitor and engage in this session. Protecting the Habitat Montana program will be high on the list. Habitat Montana is constantly under attack, and this session looks to be no different. The program is funded entirely through sportsmen dollars, and it has an incredible record of success in protecting crucial winter range for deer, elk, and other big game. Habitat Montana has also helped increase public hunting and fishing opportunity through targeted land purchases, conservation easements with willing private landowners, and by buying fishing-access sites. We must ensure this program keeps going.
The Legislature also needs to fix the funding for the game wardens. Last session the Legislature allocated federal Pittman-Robertson funds to pay for 30% of game wardens’ staff time. The problem is that PR funds can only be used for wildlife conservation, and not law enforcement. That’s a good thing, because PR has been one of the most successful programs in our nation’s history, restoring wildlife through habitat conservation and restoration. But because of those strict sideboards, game wardens are spending far less time patrolling and enforcing game laws. It’s a problem for them, for wildlife, and for landowners and we need to correct it.
MWF will also be bringing back a bill to increase the fine for gating an established county road from the current $10 per day to up to $500 per day. This common-sense measure is meant to stop the use of illegal gates across public roads that keep hunters, anglers, and other public-land users from reaching public lands.
As always, there are other issues to monitor. Aquatic Invasive Species including exotic mussels will be a big issue; Montana FWP has several clean-up bills; and there are often random bills tinkering with hunting licenses, seasons, and wildlife management that take authority away from the agency and give it to the Legislature.
For decades, MWF has been the only organization fighting for hunters, anglers, and wildlife that will be in the Capitol every day. But our success will depend on thousands of Montanans getting involved. We will be putting out a weekly legislative wildlife report, and a wildlife and public-lands bill tracker that will appear on our webpage, as well as on outsidebozeman.com. Anyone can sign up for our action alerts and email updates to stay abreast of key bills. Go to montanawildlife.org, follow MWF on Facebook, and sign up.
Nick Gevock is the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation.