A bill that would ask voters if the right to hunt, fish and trap should be stated in the state constitution is continuing to divide a coalition of sportsmen groups against Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and other sportsmen groups despite an amendment aimed at assuaging concerns.
Senate Bill 236, brought by Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, amends the constitution to say that citizens of Montana have the right to hunt, fish, trap, and harvest wild fish and wildlife, including with customary means and methods. Citizens performing those activities would be the preferred method of fish and wildlife management.
The amendment would further include language aimed at maintaining the state and Legislature’s authority to regulate hunting, fishing and trapping, and clarify that private property rights are not superseded.
During a Senate hearing the bill drew opposition from trapping opponents, but also FWP and several sportsmen groups concerned about unintended consequences from the bill. Concerns centered on the ability of FWP and the Legislature to regulate hunting, fishing and trapping if it is guaranteed as a right.
SB236 underwent an amendment to remove absolute language, which Fielder said addressed the concerns of a portion of the sportsmen opponents. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which legally reviewed the amendment, switched from opposition to support.
While not addressing the concept of the bill, Senate Democrats mostly argued against its passage on the grounds that the amended bill was too far removed from the original addressed in the hearing.
A Monday morning hearing in the House Judiciary Committee showed support from several sportsmen groups, but concerns about unintended consequences from SB236 persist.
Jeremy Maus with Montanans for Wildlife and Public Land Access, a group that opposed a ballot initiative to ban most trapping on public lands last year, described the effort to raise $500,000.
“That money could’ve went a long ways” towards conservation, he said. “We support legislation to protect our heritage and use the money for conservation in the future.”
Walleyes Unlimited of Montana, RMEF, the National Rifle Association, the Montana Woolgrowers Association, Safari Club International and the Montana Trappers Association voiced support as well.
FWP continued to oppose the bill Monday, citing multiple concerns with the legal ramifications. Chief legal counsel Becky Dockter told the committee that similar protections in other states have triggered litigation surrounding management decisions challenged as in conflict with the “right” to hunt or fish.
“In each case we have to ask ourselves if it’s worth the risk,” she said.
Former FWP legal counsel Bob Lane offered his legal opinion that SB236 would invite challenges to Montana’s policy of charging more for nonresident hunting and fishing licenses or giving preference to residents for licenses.
“When that happens, it’ll be too late,” he told the committee.
Hertha Lund, an attorney who practices in private property law, said the bill elevates hunting, fishing and trapping as a right in the constitution, while private property rights between citizens, such as trespassing, is held in statutes. That legal dynamic could be a blow to the private property owners she represents, she told the committee.
Organizations including United Property owners of Montana, The Montana Bowhunters Association, Montana Audubon and Trap Free Montana Public Lands also voiced opposition.
Fielder defended the bill, saying it affirms rights already held by Montana citizens. Language protects private property and case law allows the state to charge different fees for resident and nonresident licenses, she said.
“SB236 has some fairly simple goals and any attorney can complicate things if they’re paid to do so,” she said.
A referendum needs votes from 100 lawmakers to go to the ballot. With 30 senators voting in support of SB236, if the bill clears committee, 70 representatives would have to vote “yes” for the bill to pass.