Legislative Halftime Report

Friday marked transmittal for the 2019 Montana Legislature, which is the halfway point of the session and the day when non-revenue bills must have passed the chamber of the Legislature they were first introduced in, or they die.

For Montana’s hunters, anglers and wildlife supporters, it’s been a mixed bag. Some good bills have died and many are still alive, while many bills we have opposed have been killed and others are going to have to be worked on in the second half. The one constant is that the Montana Wildlife Federation’s staff, lobbyist and volunteers have been in the capitol every day to give our wildlife, habitat and sporting heritage a voice.

Here is the “halftime report” for our key issues:

Access Bills

Working to improve public access to public lands is a key priority for MWF. Several bills are moving in this category and we’re working to advance two bills that could help address gated roads, while we’re opposing one that could further throw doubt into roads’ public status.

SB 301 (Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby) would require that anyone gating a road that leads to public land get permission from the county commission beforehand. The bill passed the Senate 45-5, showing strong support for better public access to public lands. It will now go to the House.

HB 550 (Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston) is a bad bill for public access. It could redefine public roads that lead to public land by removing them from maps for the gas tax rolls. These maps and gas tax rolls are used to help determine the status of public roads that lead to public land, and once they’re off a public map they’ll be further in doubt as the public fights for public access. The bill passed the House 58-42 and heads to the Senate after transmittal. MWF opposed the bill and will continue working to amend it so it doesn’t impact those maps, or kill it if we can’t work with the sponsor.

HB 5: This is a big infrastructure bill. What does that have to do with access? Everything. HB 5 contains both Habitat Montana and fishing access site money. It’s currently sitting in House Appropriations, waiting on executive action. We expect it to be picked up when the Legislature reconvenes.

Elk Management

Elk management and the future of the extended shoulder seasons has been a big topic this session. Two bills that would have put shoulder seasons into law and a resolution have passed the House, although they have been amended.

HB 497 (Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale) would have allowed additional cow elk “B” tags during shoulder seasons. It was amended to remove the shoulder seasons language but would give the Fish and Wildlife Commission the authority to issue an additional cow elk license. That would make b license allocation similar to deer licenses. With these amendments, MWF has dropped our opposition and we thank both the Sponsor Wylie Galt (R-Martinsdale) and the amendment sponsor, Zach Brown (D-Helena) for working together to find common ground on a tough issue.

HJ 18 (Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale) was problematic for a variety of issues. It needlessly pitted landowners against hunters, called for party hunting, concrete dates for shoulder seasons that would eliminate the discretion of regional and local wildlife managers and would have encouraged bad behavior. MWF strongly opposed the bill. On the House floor, Rep. Zach Brown made two amendments. 1.) The party hunting was amended out, and 2.) An amendment to have Montana FWP provide a more comprehensive list of landowners who participate in the seasons.

Both amendments were put on the bill. MWF still opposes HJ 18 for the reasons mentioned above, but we thank the sponsor and the amendment sponsor for their willingness to work with the hunting community and seek a better solution.

Elk Management in Montana is tricky. With over 70 percent of the state in private hands, we must work with landowners to find better ways to manage elk that respect the public trust doctrine, while also respecting private property rights. We’re hopeful that the FWP budget remains intact, so we can hopefully start down that road together when FWP begins its new elk management plan later this year.

Fair Chase Hunting Ethics

SB 127 (Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena) would bar people from selling the data on specific big game animals. This is a trend in other states that we want to get out in front of. The bill has passed the Senate and is going to the House. MWF strongly supported it.

SB 283 (Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena) would have set up rulemaking authority for the Fish and Wildlife Commission to withhold specific data about wildlife, such as den locations, nesting areas, etc. MWF supported the bill, but it died in the Senate Fish and Game committee.

SB 187 (Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman) would have barred people from running over predatory animals with vehicles, including coyotes. The bill died in the Senate Fish and Game committee. MWF supported it.

Wolf Bills

Several bills have come forward this session that would affect wolf hunting, trapping and the cost of licenses for wolves. MWF has been engaged on all of them.

HB 551 (Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls) would have allowed wolf hunting at night. MWF opposed the bill based on how the bill was written, as well as the ethical implications. It died on the House floor 56-44.

HB 279 (Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls) would allow groups to pay trappers a bounty for dead wolves. MWF does not support bounties for game species and opposed the bill. Montana has ample wolf hunting and trapping opportunity. The bill has passed the House and is heading to the Senate, where we will continue to oppose it.

HB 291 (Rep. Becky Beard, R-Avon) would create a voluntary account with Montana FWP in which hunters could make a donation to the US Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services. In the past, voluntary accounts have not generated much funding and in many cases actually cost FWP money administrative costs. MWF opposed the bill but asked for a sunset to try it out. The bill has passed the House and will head to the Senate.

The other wolf bills, all sponsored by Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, would lower the cost of wolf licenses. They include HB 280, which would allow resident hunters to add a wolf license onto their sportsman’s license; HB 407, which would lower from $19 to $12 the cost of a wolf license for residents; and HB 281, which would give non-residents who purchase a big game combination license a half-price wolf license for $25. MWF worked on all of these bills and supports the current versions in play.

Bison Bills

HB 332 (Rep. Joshua Kassmier, R-Ft. Benton) would require county commission approval for the translocation of bison. This bill has been vetoed three times before. It has passed the House and MWF continues to oppose this bill that would give county commissions authority over wildlife management.

HB 132 (Rep. Ken Holmlund, R-Miles City) would redefine bison and make any bison that has been held in captivity domestic livestock. That would turn all bison from Yellowstone National Park that go through the quarantine facility there to ensure they’re free of brucellosis into domestic livestock. The bill has passed the House. MWF is opposed to this bill that would convert valued native wildlife into livestock and stifle future efforts to restore wildlife where appropriate.

AIS Funding

Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) and the threat they pose to our waterways and coldwater fisheries were a big issue in 2017 and continue to be. Montana FWP got its boat inspection program up and running quickly and it has been successful. The issue now is how to fund it in the future.

There are several bills in the mix, including HB 32 (Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula) is the bill that came out of the Environmental Quality Council. It would not include hydropower to help pay for the program. The bill would include funding from the state general fund, as well as from anglers through fishing licenses. It had a hearing in early February in the House Natural Resources committee but has not been voted on.

HB 411 (Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula) is another bill addressing AIS funding that creates prevention passes for boats but also broadens the funding to other sources. MWF is engaged in this and the other bills that would affect the funding to run the AIS program. We will continue to work on this major issue for our fisheries and waters.

Sage Grouse

Montana’s sage grouse conservation plan is under attack this session as well. SB 299 (Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta) would exempt the majority of development in sage grouse habitat from the standards and mitigation rules under the plan. It would likely lead to a listing of the species under the Endangered Species Act by severely weakening the plan that took a broad coalition of interest groups including industry and agriculture to develop. The bill has been amended to make it better, but still has numerous problems for the future of sage grouse conservation. MWP opposes the bill.

Grizzly Bear Resolution

SJ 6 (Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka) called for Congress to remove grizzly bears throughout all of Montana from the federal Endangered Species List. MWF sees the grizzly bear recovery in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems as a great success and supported their delisting. We have worked with the sponsor to amend the resolution to where it calls for delisting the two populations and revamping the 1993 larger grizzly conservation strategy, among other things. It’s a much better resolution that we will now support. Our sincere thanks to Senator Cuffe for his willingness to draft a resolution that brings all sides together, rather than seeking to divide Montanans on an issue which most agree on.

State Parks

SB 24 (Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena) would raise from $6 to $9 the fee on motor vehicle licenses to fund state parks, community trails and fishing access sites. The bill drew support from a broad coalition including communities, health care, and outdoor recreation. It was tabled in the Senate Fish and Game committee but was blasted onto the Senate floor where it passed 31-19.

FWP Funding

Montana FWP came into the session in sound financial shape, largely because of the revamp of hunting and fishing licenses passed by the 2015 Legislature. That bill also called for a four-year review of licenses, and the agency is not requesting a fee increase because of its financial health.

It is asking for one-time capital expenditures including upgrades to regional headquarters and fish hatcheries, some equipment including ATVs, boats and two helicopters for game surveys, and a handful of new positions including grizzly bear prevention specialists and a wildlife management planner to help craft new plans.

The budget is laid out in HB 2 (operations), HB 5 (capital expenditures) remains in good shape after coming through the subcommittees largely intact.

In addition, FWP is asking for a new Automatic Licensing System (ALS). It comes with a $10 million price tag but is justified. The system is nearly 20 years old and serves as the major vehicle for FWP to buy licenses, apply for permits and give information to the agency. MWF supports the move and has worked with the Montana Sporting Coalition to show that broad support from the sporting community.

Other Bills

SB 174 (Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings) would have allowed crossbows for disabled or hunters over the age of 70. The bill died on the Senate floor 37-13. MWF opposed it.

HB 509 (Rep. Gordon Pierson, D-Deer Lodge) would have required FWP to get a third party verification of its wildlife and fish counts. The bill would have cost FWP more than $400,000 per year. It died in the House FWP committee. MWF opposed the bill.

SB 247 (Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena) would renew for 10 years FWP’s authority to hold water rights to maintain instream flows.

 

That’s a quick highlight of the bills on our core issues that have come forward. More than 60 have been introduced, and more are expected to come forward in the second half of the session.

Thanks as always for being a member of our Legislative Action Team. MWF staff will continue to put out updates on important bills through our Facebook page, through our blog posts and with our regular weekly update on our blog. You can also access our bill tracker, which is updated in real time, on our homepage.

Please encourage friends and family with an interest in wildlife to join the LAT.

 

Nick Gevock

MWF Conservation Director