Montanans Show Continued Support for Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act

As the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee prepares for its hearing on the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act (BCSA) this Thursday, Sept. 21, multiple polls consistently highlight the unwavering support from Montanans for the landmark legislation.

Multiple polls consistently highlight the unwavering support from Montanans for the landmark legislation. The 2023 Colorado College Conservation in the West Poll added to this chorus of support, indicating that a staggering 84% of Montanans are in favor of the BCSA.

The BCSA aims to ensure hunting and fishing access, safeguard streams flowing into the Blackfoot River, and add nearly 80,000 acres of existing public lands to wilderness areas. The act also seeks to create new recreational zones while promoting sustainable timber harvest and habitat restoration.

“The results of survey after survey underscore the overwhelming importance of public lands to our communities, our economy, and our environment,” said Frank Szollosi, executive director of Montana Wildlife Federation. “As we approach the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, I urge our elected officials to recognize the collective will of Montanans.The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act has garnered substantial, long-standing bipartisan support. The BCSA is more than just a piece of legislation; it’s a vision for a path to preserve Montana’s legacy, economy, and way of life.”

The Blackfoot watershed is home to thriving fish and wildlife habitats, as well as a growing economy centered around timber and outdoor recreation. It offers unparalleled hunting and fishing opportunities. These wild lands warrant robust protection and management. The Grizzly Basin and the North Fork of the Blackfoot, which are priority habitat for grizzly bears and bull trout, represent some of the last remaining pristine territories in Montana.

For years, the Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF) has been a member of the Blackfoot Clearwater Steering Committee, which has been at the forefront of developing the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act (BCSA). Our commitment to the landmark legislation is unwavering, and we’re proud to see support from the majority of Montanans, though we still need support from Senator Steve Daines.

The Blackfoot Clearwater Steering Committee and Senator Jon Tester have spent almost 20 years adjusting the BCSA based on discussions with stakeholders, local residents, legislators, organizations, and a steering committee, resulting in broad support from Montanans.

Montanans have long shown overwhelming support for the BCSA. The University of Montana’s biennial Voter Survey on Public Lands has consistently echoed these sentiments. Commissioned by the University of Montana’s Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative, this survey has tracked the growing support for the BCSA over the years. In 2018, 73% of respondents backed the act. By 2020, this number rose to 75%. The most recent data from this survey in 2022 showed a remarkable 83% in favor of the BCSA.

The most recent poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling earlier this month, surveyed 545 Montana voters and found that 67% of respondents support the BCSA. Of those polled, 55% voted Republican in the last presidential election. A significant 89% of respondents confirmed their active use of public lands in Montana, and 88% of respondents agreed that public lands are essential to Montana’s economy, emphasizing the intertwined relationship between conservation and economic prosperity. Overall, the survey revealed that support for the BCSA transcends gender, political affiliation, age, and education.

The BCSA represents a multifaceted approach to land management, incorporating a wide range of regional interests. Its provisions, from expanding wilderness areas to creating new recreational opportunities for snowmobilers and mountain bikers, reflect a collaborative vision for Montana’s future.

Lastly, the BCSA incorporates the Southwest Crown Collaborative, which has already helped sustain local timber jobs through forest and stream restoration work. Given the increasing threats of climate change and wildfires, maintaining the health of our forests is of paramount importance.

The passage of the BCSA is long awaited, and we thank Senator Tester for his relentless advocacy for our grassroots proposal that benefits Montanans. Now, we urge Senator Daines to support this proposal and ensure it makes it to the President’s desk.

The best thing you can do to support the BCSA is to contact Senator Daines and tell him why the BCSA is important to you. You can reach Daines’ Washington D.C. office by calling (202) 224-2651.

The hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will be on Thursday, Sept. 21 at 9:30 AM EST/7:30 AM MST. You can tune into it virtually when the hearing is live here.

Montana’s Elk Face Balancing Act in Draft Management Plan

Montana adopted the current Elk Management Plan (EMP) in 2005 — 18 years ago! A lot has changed in that time. Land ownership is changing from the family farmer and rancher as people flock to Montana, and our elk population has grown while an increasing number of elk select private lands, largely in response to hunter pressure. Wildlife managers are facing the challenge of accommodating hunters while addressing the worries of landowners losing livestock forage, crops and fences to elk. 

The recently released draft EMP from FWP is an extensive document, spanning over 500 pages, with another 100-plus page Environmental Assessment. That’s an amazing amount of detail for a management plan, but don’t be intimidated by the size!

We’ve included our comments on the EMP that we sent to Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks here: MWF EMP comments 2023, and are including a summary below to help you better understand what’s being proposed in the EMP and it’s implications.

Prior to submitting these comments, MWF attended meetings in every region of the state. Every bit of commentary from the public helped during this period, and your voice and advocacy helped create a better EMP. 

Although FWP could improve some aspects of the EMP, the overall plan, alongside the Environmental Assessment and recent season setting proposals from FWP, showcases movement focused on addressing some important issues relative to elk management.

We often say that “MWF shows up,” and this effort was no different. Our staff, board members, ambassadors and membership attended over 40 meetings last year in all seven regions to help inform, weigh and analyze public perception across the state. That advocacy shined through. Thank you for showing up! 

In the draft EMP, FWP notably acknowledges the need for regular management strategy reviews every five years. They’ve increased objectives substantially in many districts, and they’ve increased efforts to improve habitat on public and private land. These actions align closely with the long-standing recommendations made by the Montana Wildlife Federation since 2015 or even earlier.

The EMP also calls for more working groups, such as the Elkhorn Working Group and the Devil’s Kitchen, which have helped reduce conflict and improve management outcomes, while bringing Montanans together. The recognition that human pressure is a significant factor affecting problematic elk distribution is crucial in developing new season setting strategies designed to increase hunter success and reduce pressure on public lands, while encouraging pressure on private lands.

“It’s encouraging to see FWP take up so many ideas and thoughts that MWF board members, affiliates and members have put forward,” said Jeff Lukas, Acting Conservation Director for the Montana Wildlife Federation who manages the organization’s elk campaign. “MWF has spent the last two years working to bring people together who traditionally disagreed on wildlife management issues. That effort paid off during the legislative session and it’s paying off in the new draft of the EMP. While it’s not perfect, it is a big step forward in helping Montanans work together to find the right outcomes on elk management.”

It is also heartening to see a call for enhanced hunter education programs to ensure that Montana puts ethical hunters in the field who understand wildlife conservation.

Despite the progressive aspects of the EMP, we also have some concerns. Specifically, we are concerned about the proposal on page 56 to eliminate limited entry permits in favor of general hunting in over-objective areas could lead to a spike in hunter pressure, further exacerbating the issue of problematic elk distribution. Notably, FWP acknowledges that such an action would increase hunter pressure on page 43 of the same plan. 

“Page 56 of the revised EMP seems to work against common sense,” said Craig Jourdonnais, former FWP biologist and co-chairman of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association’s Big Game Committee. 

“FWP outlines a management strategy for HDs that are substantially over the population objective for three consecutive years or more. First, it’s likely the population is far over objective because of chronic hunter/elk distribution issues in that HD (think about page 55 in the current EMP). Offering more bull elk hunting opportunities is a benefit to some hunters, and landowners engaging in commercial outfitting or charging a trespass fee, but it doesn’t address the overpopulation issue.”

We’re also concerned about the absence of certain provisions, such as one found on page 55 of the previous EMP, which allowed for not counting elk on inaccessible private land. In the past, this provision has helped guide FWP’s decisions to move to cow-only hunting in certain districts. FWP has only used this provision twice in the 18 years the plan was in place, but its use led to increased harvest rates and reduced conflict. 

“The basic strategies for managing an elk herd aren’t complex,” Jourdonnais said.

“When managers need to reduce a population, they liberalize the harvest opportunities for antlerless elk. Antlerless harvest is the main driver for population management. Managers may certainly increase harvest opportunities for bull elk too, but harvesting more bull elk alone isn’t an effective long-term solution to population management. Page 55 of the old EMP gave us the tools to manage antlerless harvest in a manner that actually achieved the goals relative to herd population size and protected elk on accessible lands from over harvest. It’s baffling why it isn’t in the new EMP.”

The EMP also lacks updated scientific research on the impact of summer recreation on cow and calf elk during crucial times of the year, as stakeholders highlight the need for updated scientific research to inform decisions on elk management during crucial periods of the year.

Throughout the plan’s development, FWP has sought public input through a massive effort including over 40 stakeholder meetings and two elk advisory committees, demonstrating the agency’s commitment to listening to Montanans. However, the veto of a widely supported, bipartisan bill, SB 442, would have allowed the agency to delve deeper into the habitat issue across land ownerships. 

As Montana’s EMP undergoes public scrutiny and potential revisions, it remains to be seen how the state will strike the delicate balance between managing elk populations while addressing hunters’ and stakeholders’ concerns. FWP is currently reviewing public comment before the next version of the plan is released late this summer or early this fall. Sign up for our email updates to keep abreast of the latest developments with elk management. 

MWF Celebrates Landmark Decision in Youth-led Climate Case

Today’s landmark decision by the Lewis and Clark County District Court marks an unprecedented triumph in the fight for climate justice, and the protection of wildlife, habitat and future generations of Montanans. We at the Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana’s oldest, largest, and most effective wildlife conservation organization, are deeply grateful to the young whose actions inspire us to redouble our commitment to climate action.

“This historic ruling is a monumental win not only for the youth plaintiffs, but for the people of Montana and the nation,” said Frank Szollosi, Executive Director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “It affirms our constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment and sets a precedent that holds governments accountable to considering the impacts of energy projects. Today, we celebrate a victory that transcends generations, aligning with our enduring fight to conserve Montana’s natural resources and ensure a thriving environment amid the challenges of climate change.”

Judge Kathy Seeley’s ruling that the provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act is unconstitutional resonates with our core mission. Her recognition that the plaintiffs have a “fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system” strikes at the very heart of what we strive to preserve every day.

This victory belongs to the courageous youth of Montana who have become pioneers in a national movement that demands governments fulfill their duty to address climate change. Their efforts are not only an inspiration to us in Montana but to people around the world who are standing up for the right to live in a healthy environment.

“Montana hunters and anglers know the science and know the impacts that climate change is having on our habitat and wildlife,” Szollosi said. “These young people are correct, rising water temperatures and extreme weather are taking a toll, whether that be on westslope cutthroat trout or migrating ungulates such as mule deer. State action that fails to take into account climate science is short-sighted, wrong and constitutionally, illegal.”

By holding the state accountable for failing to consider the impacts of energy projects, we hope to see a transformative shift in policy and action not only in Montana but across the nation.

Montana’s rich natural resources should be managed responsibly to ensure they serve future generations. This ruling is a crucial step towards a sustainable future where economic prosperity and environmental stewardship go hand in hand.

“Today, Montana stands as a beacon of hope and a symbol of what determined, united action can achieve for the health of our planet and the legacy we leave for future generations.”

MWF & Wild Montana file lawsuit to protect Legislature’s right to override Governor’s veto

The Montana Wildlife Federation and Wild Montana filed suit today to compel Governor Greg Gianforte and Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen to comply with their obligations under the Montana Constitution and allow the Montana Legislature the opportunity to override the Governor’s veto of Senate Bill 442 (“SB 442”).

On May 1, 2023, the Legislature passed SB 442—an overwhelmingly bipartisan, politically popular measure that directs recreational marijuana tax revenue to conservation and recreation programs, local infrastructure projects, and veterans’ services. Of 150 legislators, 130 voted to pass SB 442. The next day, the Governor vetoed the bill, but the Senate adjourned before the veto was communicated to the full Senate.

When the Governor vetoes a bill passed by a supermajority of legislators after the Legislature has adjourned, the Constitution requires that the Secretary poll the Legislature by mail. Normally, the Governor returns the bill with his reasons for veto to the Secretary, triggering the post-adjournment override process. When the Governor failed to take that step, Wild Montana—a nonprofit grassroots conservation organization that unites and mobilizes communities to keep Montana wild—and the Montana Wildlife Federation—Montana’s oldest, largest, and most effective wildlife conservation organization—called on the Governor to uphold the Montana Constitution and return the bill to the Secretary. The Governor refused, leading to today’s filing.

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“Montanans are disappointed in Governor Gianforte’s veto of SB 442, a wildly popular bipartisan bill that made historic investments in conservation, public access, and rural infrastructure,” said Noah Marion, state policy director for Wild Montana. “But even more importantly, it’s the Governor’s duty to play by the rules. The Governor can’t obstruct the legislature’s authority with procedural trickery.”

“Contrary to the wishes of 130 legislators and countless Montanans, the Governor’s veto takes tens of millions of dollars away from wildlife, roads, rural communities, and veterans,” said Frank Szollosi, Executive Director for Montana Wildlife Federation. “Our Constitution provides that the Legislature gets a chance to override a veto. The executive branch cannot stand in the way.”

“The Montana Constitution empowers the Legislature to override a veto by a two-thirds vote in all circumstances—there are no loopholes,” said Constance Van Kley, Litigation Director of Upper Seven Law, who represents Wild Montana and the Montana Wildlife Federation. “The Governor cannot usurp the Legislature’s role with a creatively timed veto.”

The Montana Wildlife Federation and Wild Montana are working tirelessly to defend the integrity of the legislative process and protect Montana’s natural resources. You can play a crucial role in supporting their legal action by becoming a member of Montana Wildlife Federation and making a donation today.

By pursuing legal action, the Montana Wildlife Federation and Wild Montana strive to protect the integrity of the legislative process and ensure that Montanans’ voices are heard. To stay informed about this ongoing case and support the efforts of these organizations, subscribe to emails from the Montana Wildlife Federation. Together, we can uphold the principles of democracy and champion the preservation of Montana’s precious natural resources.

About Upper Seven Law: Upper Seven Law is a Montana-based nonprofit law firm dedicated to holding the powerful accountable. Based on the belief that creativity and innovation in law are essential to advancing social justice and public interest objectives, Upper Seven takes smart risks and invests the time necessary to build foundations for long-term accountability work.

2nd Annual Montana Women’s Ice Fishing Clinic

By MWF Communications Coordinator Cameron Evans and North-Central Field Representative Morgan Marks. 

The sunrise marked the start of the second annual Women’s Ice Fishing Clinic hosted by the Montana Wildlife Federation and Artemis Sportswomen. Photo by Cameron Evans

The sky over Canyon Ferry Reservoir cast cotton candy clouds onto a thick layer of ice as dawn broke on Saturday, Feb. 25. The pink skies welcomed a group of women who gathered near a boat launch for the second annual women’s ice fishing clinic hosted by Montana Wildlife Federation and Artemis Sportswomen.

More than 30 women of all ages and experience levels bundled up and gathered before dawn in 10-degree weather for the clinic.

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Participants gather near the boat launch at Canyon Ferry Reservoir. Photo by Ilona Wilde

The women circled up, coffee mugs in hand, for introductions and a lesson on ice safety and staying warm before taking to the ice. Some women were avid ice anglers, some had been out a time or two with friends, and others were completely new to fishing.

With help from volunteer instructors Stephanie Adams-Clemen (Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks State Trails Coordinator), Kimberly (Berly) McCoy (an avid ice fisher and science podcast producer NPR’s daily science show, Short Wave), Katie Vivian (Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks Region 4 Fisheries Biologist), and Jessi Gudgel (Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks Aquatic Invasive Species Monitoring Specialist), the women rigged up ice fishing rods and shimmied like penguins across the ice to holes that the instructors had drilled by the light of headlamps earlier that morning.

Stephanie Adams-Clemen sets up an automatic hookset tip-up. Photo by Cameron Evans

Each instructor came from a different background.

The event would not have been possible without its hosts: MWF and Artemis, the volunteer instructors, MWF staff who helped organize the event (Field Representatives Morgan Marks and Ilona Wilde, and Communications Coordinator Cameron Evans) and, of course, the event’s sponsors.

The sponsors for this event included Blackfoot River Brewery in Helena, North 40 Outfitters (which has locations in Great Falls and Havre, as well as other locations outside Montana), and Helena Tourism Alliance in Helena. We’re incredibly grateful for their support and community ethics.

As women began to fish, instructors went around offering lessons and advice and pausing for demonstrations. Instructors showed participants how to drill holes using an auger, how to add powerbait to a hook, how to tie basic knots, how to jig, and how to handle fish.

Katie Vivian, a volunteer instructor and fisheries biologist in Choteau, demonstrates how to use a tip-up. Photo by Cameron Evans

It wasn’t long before rods started to bend, with nearly a dozen healthy 2-3 pound rainbow trout caught by the group that day. Some women caught fish jigging, while others ran over to automatic hooksetters that the instructors had set up.

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Katie Vivian holds a rainbow trout up for a quick kiss from a participant. Vivian has a tradition of inviting people to kiss the first fish they catch. Photo by Ilona Wilde.

After a long, productive morning on the ice, the women reeled their line up, packed gear into sleds, and made their way to Silos Junction restaurant where they traded stories about the fish that were caught that day and the memories that were made along the way.

During lunch, MWF staff discussed the importance of women’s events and invited women to get involved however they would like going forward. Staff also shared multiple ways that women can become involved with ongoing conservation efforts through volunteering and field events, and have their voices heard on bills going through the 2023 Montana legislative session.

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Women gathered after fishing at Silos Junction Bar and Grill to eat, talk and learn about how to become involved in conservation efforts. Photo by Cameron Evans

The clinic aimed to not only teach women how to ice fish but also to foster community and friendships among women. With similar goals, MWF and Artemis Sportswomen worked with Katie Vivian, to host a deer butchering workshop earlier this fall. Read all about that event HERE.

The goals of these women-focused events are three-fold: to increase women’s access and participation in outdoor recreation; give women the tools, skills, and confidence to continue to build upon skills learned in a safe and welcoming space; and increase women’s involvement and representation in conservation. Lastly, our community is an inclusive one. We welcome all womxn and gender non-conforming folks to this event and other women-focused events. If you identify yourself as a woman, no matter the complexity, we welcome you.

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Participants gather around to assist and learn how to pull a fish through the hole. Photo by Ilona Wilde.

Studies have shown that creating a space for women in hunting and fishing not only helps them access the sport but also keeps them involved in the sport over time. That’s the goal of women-focused events, to continue creating spaces where women can learn, gather, network, have fun, and grow. We’re already looking forward to next year so stay tuned for announcements later this year about the third annual women’s ice fishing clinic!

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Jeff Lukas – MWF Elk Campaign Manager

Jeff Lukas

Elk Campaign Manager

Jeff Lukas is a passionate conservationist who has been fishing and hunting his entire life. Whether it’s floating a small stream chasing trout, pursuing elk in the high country, or waiting in a blind for ducks to set their wings, Jeff is always trying to bring more people afield to show them what we are trying to protect. He loves being in the arena, and he will never shy away from conversations about the beautiful and unique corners of Big Sky country.