The 2019 turned out to be a success for wildlife and habitat. We look back at a session that had more than 80 bills affecting our core issues of wildlife, habitat and access, and see many wins and a handful of losses when it comes to improving public access to public lands.
First off, our best conservation and hunting access program, Habitat Montana, came out of the session intact and fully funded. Habitat Montana uses hunting license dollars to protect important wildlife habitat through conservation easements and targeted land purchases. For over 30 years, Habitat Montana has been a vital tool to ensure that family farms and ranches stay how they are, while providing meaningful protections for prime wildlife habitat and access to those lands.
In addition, Montana FWP comes out of this session with the best budget it’s had in over a decade. The agency will receive the needed equipment and personnel to properly manage wildlife, including two new permanent grizzly bear management specialists, a statewide deer and elk planner, upgrades to hatcheries, a new Automated Licensing System to keep up with the times, and new boats, snow machines and ATVs for wardens and biologists so they can safely do field work.
The Legislature also passed the first significant increase in funding for our state parks in well over a decade. SB 24 will pump an additional $2 million per year into our state parks and recreational trails, and was passed after a broad coalition of public lands advocates, trail users, community leaders and health advocates came together.
Montana’s fair chase hunting heritage also won. SB 349 makes it illegal to use wildlife location data to hunt or harass wildlife. SJ 30 lays out an interim study to look at how FWP can better manage wildlife data in the digital age.
Hunter-landowner relations received a boost with two bills that build on incentives for landowners who open their land to public hunters, including updating the 454 program that lets FWP negotiate better access with landowners in exchange for non-transferable permits and licenses, and another that gives the required base hunting license for Block Management participants.
We strengthened the sage grouse conservation program while providing more surety for industry, and Montana also renewed the Aquatic Invasive Species program in order to protect our world-famous waters.
Public access to public lands had a mixed bag. SB 341, the Public Access Land act, is designed to open opportunities to access landlocked public lands. This program will undergo rulemaking which MWF will be participating in to ensure that the program is instituted as envisioned.
Public access advocates were disappointed that the Legislature failed to pass SB 224 and SB 301. Those bills would have gone a long way toward addressing the difficult issue of when people cut off access to our public lands. It was also disappointing to see the Legislature pass HB 265, which reinjected politics into the decision making process of Habitat Montana after all hunting and angling organizations opposed the bill.
Still, Montana’s hunters, anglers and recreational users can look back at the 2019 Legislature and see a lot of wins. It’s what happens when Montanans work together on the key conservation issues that are important to all of us.
Bill Geer is president of the Montana Wildlife Federation.