It was another busy week in the Capitol, with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks budget hearings, lots of bills moving and having hearings and our intrepid lobbying team working overtime to make sure Montana’s wildlife, wild places and hunters and anglers were represented.
Road Fine Bill Introduced
Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, introduced SB 224. This simple bill would increase the fine for gating an established county road from the current $10 per day to up to $500 per day. The bill has been assigned to the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee and should get a hearing soon. Look to the MWF homepage, Facebook page and for our email action alerts to get involved as this important bill moves ahead.
This is the second time Senator Jacobson has brought this bill forward. Groups dedicated to decreasing access and closing roads leading to public lands have used their political sway to keep the bill in committee and not allow it to go to the floor for a full hearing. With over 60 co-sponsors, we hope that it has a fair hearing, and moves forward this time. We’ll be working with the Montana Association of Counties as well as our affiliate, the Public Land and Water Access Association to push this bill to the finish line. More on this as it develops, but get ready to help with your voice!
Parks Funding Bill
A bill that would increase funding for state parks, as well as trails and fishing access sites, moved forward this week.
SB 24, sponsored by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, was tabled 6-4 in the Senate Fish and Game Committee, but then was blasted out of committee and to the floor Friday on a 30-16 vote. The bill would raise the current opt-out $6 fee on motor vehicle registration to $9, and allocated the money to state parks, trails and fishing access sites. It has support from numerous communities, recreation interests, and health care insurers. We expect second reading on the bill early next week, and will be tracking it as the session continues.
Crossbows in Archery Season
The Senate Fish and Game Committee also heard a bill that would allow crossbows by disabled hunters and those over 70 during the archery-only season. SB 174, sponsored by Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, drew supporters who argued it would open up opportunity for disabled and older hunters. However, the Montana Bowhunters Association (MBA), Traditional Bowhunters of Montana and MWF, among others, came in against the bill. The real issue with this bill is that it isn’t necessary, since the fish and wildlife commission can already establish rules and regulations for archery seasons, including what weapons are used, and by whom. Our friends at the Montana Bowhunters Association have developed a technology matrix to deal with this, which has been adopted by the Commission. For decades, MBA has also provided fee adaptive equipment for disabled hunters.
HB 287, sponsored by Rep. Bridget Smith, R-Wolf Point, was heard in the House FWP committee this week. It would put into state law a mandatory 24-hour trap check. MWF opposed the bill because we don’t support putting things into state law that the Fish and Wildlife Commission has the authority to do. Trap check timing is set by the commission, based on input from trappers, biologists, recreationalists and others who are able to participate in stakeholder meetings at the local level. MWF is a strong supporter of this model, and because of that, we opposed this bill.
Conservation Easement Bill
HB 265, sponsored by Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, would reverse last year’s state Supreme Court ruling that determined conservation easements are complete once the Fish and Wildlife Commission approves them. HB 265 would create more bureaucratic headaches and possibly put the private property rights for landowners to enter into agreements with FWP into jeopardy. The Stenson family & the Horse Creek easement, which was the impetus for the court battle, testified against the bill in the House FWP committee, as well as MWF, the Montana Sporting Coalition and many other sporting and conservation organizations.
SB 167, sponsored by Bruce Gillespie, R-Ethridge, would extend the free licenses provided to military members when they go on active duty for five years, and reset the time period. MWF testified in support of the bill to show gratitude for public service. The bill would have no effect on FWP’s budget.
HB 275, sponsored by Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, would clarify which veterans qualify for free licenses from residents under a program created in 2013. The program allows a Montana resident to give his or her license to a disabled veteran for use in programs in which they’re guided. MWF spoke in favor of the bill.
HB 104, providing the required free prerequisite base hunting and aquatic invasive species stamp for landowners who are in the Block Management program, passed out of the Senate Fish and Game Committee. MWF supported it.
The committee also heard HB 43, which allows for a free elk license for landowners who open up their property to at least four public hunters chosen by FWP. The free licenses are non-transferrable and can only be used by the landowner, their immediate family or a designated full-time employee. Again, MWF supported the program because it has strong sideboards and has the potential to open up private land to public hunters and build hunter-landowner relations.
A range of additional bills continue to move ahead in the Legislature. They include:
HB 239 which allows hunters to donate back drawing fees for the Block Management program passed the House.
SB 79 which clarifies how bonus points are awarded for hunters applying as a party passed out of the Senate and moves to the House FWP committee.
FWP’s budget hearing was this week, with the Montana Wildlife Federation and Montana Trout Unlimited standing up to support agency priorities. That included requests in HB 2 increased funding for wardens. It also worked to address the funding that was removed in previous budgets for hatchery operations, fisheries management, as well as allow FWP to purchase some new equipment like boats, ATV’s and other fleet vehicles that are coming to the end of their serviceable life. FWP operates in extreme conditions, and its gear needs to be in good shape. Some of the boats and snowmobiles agency personnel uses are 15 to 20 years old and have a lot of hours on them. It’s time to modernize the fleet and keep our wardens, biologists and wildlife management area personnel in the field, doing what they do best.
HB 5, which contains Habitat Montana, fisheries access, Governor’s tag money for bighorn sheep, moose and mountain goat advanced out of committee this week as well. No amendments were made on the bill that would negatively impact these critical habitats and access programs. We’re hopeful that the Legislature continues its good work and allows Habitat Montana and the other programs to carry on to serve the citizens of Montana.
And finally, HB 10 also came up for a hearing this week. This bill contains a $10 million provision to replace the now 20-year-old Automated Licensing System. You know it as the program that crashes every time you try to find out if you’re successful in drawing that 380 elk tag, or the 270 mule deer tag. We’ll keep bird-dogging this effort so FWP’s licensing system isn’t ancient, in software terms.
A whole new set of bills will be heard next week before several committees on matters that affect our wildlife, habitat and sporting opportunity. Stay informed by checking our bill tracker.
For more frequent updates, join our legislative action team and please ask friends and family to join as well.
MWF Conservation Director