Wildlife victories show how legislators, citizens work together

By: 
Bill Geer
The Montana Wildlife Federation

Another acrimonious session of the Montana Legislature has come to an end.  

Montana’s hunters, anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts had several successes in this session.  We spoke up for wildlife and our outdoor heritage, we reached across political divides, and our elected officials heard us.  In a tough political time, we made the legislative process work by working together.

The biggest win for all Montanans is the full restoration of funding for our state’s premier habitat protection and public access program, Habitat Montana. The program takes a small portion of hunting licenses and puts it into a fund that pays for conservation easements, land purchases and fishing access sites.  Over the years, it has protected key habitat for wildlife, opened hundreds of thousands of acres for public hunting and fishing, and helped protect working farms and ranches from subdivision.  

The 2017 Legislature agreed to lift restrictions imposed on the program in 2015, meaning that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) can once again use the program to provide more opportunities for Montanans to enjoy the outdoors.

We were also successful in defeating bills that cut funding for FWP, interfered with science-based wildlife management, or tried to micromanage the work of professional wildlife managers. 

This session saw fewer such bills than past years, which hopefully reflects growing trust by legislators and more support for managing wildlife according to science rather than special interest politics. There were also more positive bills to address emerging wildlife threats, like the spread of aquatic invasive species and chronic wasting disease.

The Legislature passed several bills that helped address the needs of farmers and ranchers on wildlife management issues.  This included the renewal of the Livestock Loss Reduction Program, a state fund that pays ranchers for livestock lost to grizzly bears and wolves. 

That fund also funds work to prevent attacks on livestock, which helps wildlife, ranchers and our state and federal wildlife agencies.  In addition, the Legislature agreed to increase the payment that a landowner can receive for participating in the Block Management program, which compensates landowners for providing public access to private land. 

Our successes on wildlife management, habitat protection and public access are the result of people being willing to roll up their sleeves and work together.  Even in this tough political time, it is possible to find common ground and enact policies that protect our outdoor traditions, expand public access for hunting and fishing, protect private property, and support Montana’s farmers and ranchers. 

Unfortunately, there are still some people who seek political advantage in drawing dividing lines between sportsmen, landowners, and other groups of Montanans.  One bill that did not pass this session would have increased the fine for illegally blocking county roads that lead to public land.  This bill was developed over a year of hard work and was written to protect county government authority and private property rights, while providing a concrete county-based solution to the issue of illegal barriers on established public roads.  This carefully-written bill fell prey to misleading political rhetoric, leaving the issue of illegal road closures unresolved for another session.

Despite that setback, we are hopeful that Montana lawmakers see the overall successes of the 2017 session on wildlife and outdoor issues as a path forward for future compromise.  When sportsmen, landowners, conservationists, and other interest groups work together we can find common ground.  

And when legislators put aside their own partisan political differences and advance the common ground solutions that citizens devise, it protects Montana’s heritage, our economy, and our way of life.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Geer is president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. 

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