A bill that would have tapped hunter license dollars to pay for elk damage to crops in areas well over population objectives and limited permits passed an initial vote in the House on Tuesday before being voted down in the appropriations committee.
House Bill 697 from Rep. Joshua Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, would allow compensation only in hunting districts where elk populations are 200% over objective or more, and where the state limits elk hunting permits. Kassmier brought an amendment to the bill on the House floor Tuesday which would have capped payments at $3 million annually with potential to increase, and no longer required the funding to come from the Habitat Montana account, which is used for habitat and access programs. The amendment also added a public access section to the bill, stating that allowing one or more people to hunt constituted public access.
The amendment came amid concern that the original bill put at risk $28 million in federal funding going to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Kassmier said. By moving the funding from Habitat Montana and adding public access, he believed the bill would continue to allow the state to qualify for restrictions on expenditure of license dollars tied to the federal dollars. Plus, if the state removed limited permits or managed elk to objectives, the fiscal impact would be zero, he added.
Republicans backed HB 697, with Speaker of the House Wylie Galt of Martinsdale, warning Montana is heading towards a major problem with elk populations in many areas well above objectives and potential for disease. The bill represents out-of-the-box thinking that continues to spur the conversation, he said.
Supporters of the bill argued that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has allowed elk numbers to climb in many areas with only 27 of the states 172 districts currently meeting objectives. With 19 special permit districts at 200% over objective, that has led to calls among some landowner groups for reforms, including United Property Owners of Montana, which has supported HB 697.
But in addition to the fiscal impact, many opponents believed the bill could reduce public access to elk on private lands and incentivize landowners to keep elk numbers high. By including permits for bulls the bill also ran counter to the biological approach FWP uses to manage elk populations primarily through hunting of cows, opponents have said.
The bill passed the House on a vote of 61-36 with most Republicans, who hold the majority, in favor.
The vote then moved the bill to the House Appropriations Committee, where it saw support from United Property Owners of Montana and opposition from Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, as well as FWP.
FWP deputy director Dustin Temple said the agency still has concerns that the amended bill risked the $28 million and questioned whether the single hunter required is sufficient to constitute public access as outlined in federal regulations.