Despite what Republicans say on the campaign trail about protecting public lands and access, Montana sportsmen and sportswomen’s hard-fought right to hunt and recreate is directly in their crosshairs this legislative session. There is no doubt additional threats are on the horizon.
In 2010, Montana voters eliminated outfitter sponsored licenses when they passed Initiative 161. Senate Bill 143, carried by Republican Sen. Jason Ellsworth, seeks to overturn the will of the voters and once again hand over outfitter-sponsored big game licenses to wealthy out-of-staters. The voters recognized the system that guaranteed an outfitter’s business was not in the best interest of Montana sportsmen and sportswomen, and further limited the ability of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to manage big game populations.
Under this policy, we saw more land leased for the exclusive use of outfitters which cut access for Montana hunters and resulted in unmanageable elk populations that took refuge on private land. Outfitters are an essential part of our recreation economy. While they have a long and rich history in our state and provide an excellent service to hunters and fishermen, voters have already made clear that outfitters should not be given a guaranteed clientele at the expense of those who can’t afford their services. Some Republicans think they know better than Montana voters.
Bottom line: you shouldn’t have to be able to afford an outfitter to hunt in our great state.
Republicans are also adding layers of government bureaucracy for private landowners who want to enter into conservation easements. The Habitat Montana program uses fees paid on hunting licenses to purchase conservation easements that help private landowners voluntarily protect their land. These agreements provide a lifeline to private landowners and ranching families to ensure they keep the land that’s been in their families for generations while preserving wildlife habitat and opening the land to some public hunting. Each agreement is currently reviewed and approved by the governor appointed Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission.
This process has been working for decades, yet Senate Bill 115, introduced by Republican Sen. Keith Regier, would add bureaucracy and government overreach by requiring easement approval by the State Land Board. This bill was strongly opposed by farming and ranching families from across the state. One family said “the reality of modern ranching is that if you're not moving forward, you’re moving backward” and added their conservation easement allowed their operation to “expand when expansion was not only wanted but needed.” Legislators should respect decisions made by private landowners and not require partisan government interference.
While Gov. Gianforte is calling for less red tape in state government, his Republican majority in the Legislature is adding unnecessary and politically driven bureaucracy to meddle in private landowner decisions. Jumping through another hoop of partisan antics at the Land Board will eliminate opportunities for important conservation easements, as thoughtful landowners choose to avoid subjecting their family property rights to political grandstanding.
We have received hundreds of messages from constituents urging legislators to reject these harmful bills. Democrats have heard Montanans loud and clear and are standing strong against these efforts to overturn the will of the voters and limit Montanans’ access to public lands and outdoor recreation. We will continue to fight for the rights of landowners, sportsmen and sportswomen, and defend efforts to protect wildlife habitat and our access to public lands.
This opinion is signed by Democrats on the Montana Senate Fish and Game Committee: Vice Chair Sen. Tom Jacobson, Sen. Pat Flowers, Sen. Edie McClafferty and Sen. Jill Cohenour.