Limiting Fish, Wildlife and Parks from any net gain in property would be better for private landowners by often removing a competitor to ranchers looking to buy property, as well as help the rural communities reliant on those lands to generate agricultural income, proponents of a bill said in a legislative hearing Wednesday.
“One of the reasons I brought this bill forth, and it isn’t the first time, is to ask how much is enough?” questioned Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, who sponsored Senate Bill 237, during a Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing.
Citing the recent and controversial FWP acquisition of the Milk River Ranch in northern Montana as well as the transfer of bison to reservations last year in the northeast, Brenden sees the agency in need of greater regulation. He also threatened that more state land acquisitions will simply lead to private landowners locking sportsmen out in protest.
“Locking up land is the only thing we have left to fight the system,” he said. “And you can only push me so far.”
Sporting groups opposed the measure and found unusual allies in the Montana Department of Transportation and Department of Military Affairs, agencies concerned that the bill would affect them. An FWP spokesman said land acquisitions are the most popular actions the agency takes on behalf of state sportsmen and women.
“I’ll be perfectly honest with you, we want more,” said George Golie of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “We just have a difference in philosophy.”
Vito Quatraro of the Montana Sportsmen’s Alliance said limiting FWP land purchases is contrary to the free-market system.
“You’re dictating to me who I can sell my land to,” he said.
Brenden said he would be open to amending the bill to help out the Department of Military Affairs when it is required to build new National Guard armories on 15 acres of land, but was less clear about modifying it to support DOT’s land acquisitions to replace wetlands the agency destroys with road construction and is required to mitigate.
The committee is expected to take action on the bill Friday.
Earlier in the meeting, the committee held a hearing on SB278, which would ratify the water rights compact with the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
“This was a long and challenging process,” said Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, who sponsored the bill. “Not everyone is happy, but way more than the majority is” satisfied.
Without passage of the bill, the issue would land in water court for adjudication.
“I’m not sure my clients feel good, but they can live with it,” said Hertha Lund, representing the Eastern Montana Concerned Citizens. “The landowners don’t want to go to court.”
The lone opponent to the bill was former senator Ed Butcher who called the compact the “elephant’s nose in the tent as far as the federal government is concerned.” He said the bill give the federal government a claim to the state’s waters.
“The water is ours and that’s the bottom line,” he said.
“As this thing stands, you’re giving up any control over these water basins.”
The committee is expected to vote on the measure at its Friday meeting.