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Montana seeks to balance sensitive wildlife data with public's right to know

Montana seeks to balance sensitive wildlife data with public's right to know

Elk lift

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks uses a helicopter to transport an elk in a capture and collar study.

Lawmakers, conservation groups and open government advocates are working toward compromise on legislation that restricts use of exact wildlife location data produced by the state of Montana.

During the last legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill brought by Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, criminalizing the use of state data, such as the exact GPS locations of collared wildlife in research projects, for the purpose of hunting. The bill sought to halt hunters’ use of public records law, which requires the state to release the information, and gain an unfair advantage under the edict of fair chase hunting.

In the past two years the state has received 45 requests for wildlife location data, and of those requests 24 self-reported their intention to use the data to hunt, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

While the concept of limiting access to the GPS collar data or other “sensitive” information such as denning sites for endangered species has generally seen support, the Montana Constitution provides few exceptions for the release of information produced by state agencies.

Due to concerns about weakening open government laws, the Montana Newspaper Association initially opposed an early version of the bill which would outlaw the data’s release altogether. Natural resource developers that request the data for environmental assessments also came out in opposition. That led to the law on the books today that says while the state must release the data, it cannot be used to hunt.

Now the Montana Environmental Quality Council, an interim legislative committee, has taken up the issue to see if changes to the law should be made. That has included a continued dialogue between Cohenour, FWP, conservation groups and the newspaper association.

At Thursday’s meeting of the EQC, lawmakers and the public saw how that dialogue has progressed, including how the state of Montana would handle future record requests.

Under an unofficial bill draft, FWP would ask the requester to accept “buffered” data, meaning small in scale but not the exact location. Such a request would “prevent the unreasonable depletion and degradation of fish and wildlife as natural resources,” required under Montana’s constitution.

If the requester insists on exact location data, the state will release it along with a warning about the criminal penalties if used for hunting.

Cohenour believed the language struck a good balance between the concerns of protecting the data with the requirement to release public information.

“I’m very, very happy that we found that middle ground,” she said.

John MacDonald, lobbyist for the newspaper association, said his organization had significant concerns about weakening the public’s right to access the data but also recognized wildlife advocates’ concerns.

“What’s good about this legislation is it’s ensuring there’s an enforcement component and an education component,” he said. “… We believe and hope that will eliminate or substantially reduce instances where people might misuse this information.”

Some lawmakers felt the bill should also require FWP to alert landowners of the presence of large predators such as wolves or grizzly bears.

FWP Director Martha Williams said that while not required, field staff and game wardens often alert people to the presence of large predators as a matter of courtesy.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin


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State Reporter/Outdoors Reporter

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

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