Legislature Passes Bad Bill for Habitat Montana

HB 265 Headed to Governor, While Good Access Bills Die

The Montana Senate this week passed the bill that would severely damage Habitat Montana despite strong opposition from hunters, anglers and recreational users.

In addition, a good bill to address the issue of illegal gates on county roads was killed by the Legislature this week. Those key highlights mark the past week as we are very close to the end of the 2019 session.

Here are the highlights:

Attack on Habitat Montana Passes

HB 265 (Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman) would require state Land Board approval for conservation easements under the Habitat Montana program. This issue arose last year when the Land Board indefinitely delayed the Horse Creek Complex conservation easement near Wibaux for no valid reason. The project would have permanently opened 20,000 acres of excellent habitat to public hunting and helped secure the future of a ranching family. After Gov. Bullock approved the easement and had the authority of the governor to do so challenged, the state Supreme Court ruled that Land Board approval isn’t required of conservation easements.

MWF and our conservation partners made our opposition to this bill clear. We want to keep the certainty for landowners to begin negotiations with Montana FWP on easement projects. MWF and the Montana Sporting Coalition will be asking Bullock to veto this bad bill for landowners, wildlife and hunters.

Road Fine Bill Rejected by House

A bill that would have addressed the difficult issue of illegal gates on county roads that lead to public land was killed by the House this week.

SB 224 (Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls) would have increased the fine for gating a county road from the current $10 per day to up to $80 per day, with no minimum fine. The bill was originally written to be a fine of up to $500 per day but was amended in the Senate to up to $80. That made it an inflationary adjustment from when the fine was passed more than 50 years ago.

But the bill died in the House Judiciary committee. And this week it was killed on the House floor in a blast vote to bring it back alive in a 55-42 vote. The bill had support from the Montana Association of Counties, county attorneys and sportsmen and sportswomen, and opposition only from the anti-access United Property Owners of Montana and the Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers Association. We’re disappointed this common-sense measure to improve access was killed by legislators.

Fair Chase Bills Die

Two bills to protect specific wildlife location data and uphold Montana’s fair chase hunting ethic were killed this week in the House FWP committee.

SB 127 (Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena) would have made it illegal to sell specific wildlife location data. It’s a trend we’ve seen in other states and want to get ahead of. The bill had passed the Senate and had broad support from Montana hunters and anglers. But the committee killed the bill, and only gave vague reasons for doing so.

In addition, SB 349 (Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena) would have made it illegal to use specific wildlife location data from Montana FWP to hunt or harass wildlife. The bill would continue to allow FWP to do needed research on big game, birds and fish, and maintain the public’s right to public information, but also prevent the abuse of that data. It had also passed the Senate but died in the House FWP committee.

MWF and our conservation partners had supported both bills. We are disappointed the Legislature didn’t stand with us and continue to put Montana in a leadership role in hunting ethics.

Parks, Trails Bill Keeps Moving

On a positive note, the bill to increase funding for state parks, trails and recreation is still moving ahead. SB 24 (Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena) would increase the optional fee on light motor vehicles from the current $6 per year to $9. The funding would be used for our state parks and trails to increase recreational opportunities. The bill has broad support from conservation, community, and other interests. It passed the House on second reading this week 65 to 35. It now goes to the House Appropriations committee before being sent back to the House for third and final reading.

Public Access Land Network Bill Advances

The Public Access Land network bill, or PAL, would provide funding to work with landowners to purchase easements to landlocked public lands through negotiated agreements. SB 341 (Sen. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell) brought together a broad array of sportsmen interests to build the program. It has been reviewed by FWP and would not detract from existing access programs including Block Management and Habitat Montana, but rather is meant as another tool to increase the public’s access to landlocked public lands.

The bill passed the House on second reading this week 93 to 7. It will now go to the Appropriations committee before it goes for third and final reading.

That’s a review of the major bills from the past week. MWF staff, our lobbyist and our volunteers remained engaged and are working to ensure that wildlife, habitat, and access are protected as we approach the end of the session. You can get a complete review of the dozens of bills on our issues by going to our Bill Tracker.

Nick Gevock

Conservation Director