Committee OKs bill to study landowner, FWP relations

2013-04-09T17:08:00Z 2013-04-15T13:13:08Z Committee OKs bill to study landowner, FWP relationsBy BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

The relationship between Montana landowners and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is at a “crisis point” and merits a study of the problem, the Senate Fish and Game Committee decided on Tuesday.

The committee advanced House Bill 298, which has already been approved by the House. But the House had amended the bill to include hunters in the discussion. The Senate Fish and Game Committee removed that group from the bill.

“I would certainly support removing hunters from this,” said Sen. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon.

Sen. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings, opposed the move, saying that hunter access to land is at the core of the problem.

“You’re taking out an important constituency,” he said.

Sen. Brad Hamlett, D-Cascade, said that even if removed from the bill, hunters will still have a voice if the measure is approved and assigned to the Environmental Quality Council.

“If it goes to the EQC, everyone will be able to wade in,” he said.

The bill’s sponsor is Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre. She said FWP’s purchase of the Milk River Ranch and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s decision to move 64 quarantined Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation have soured relations between FWP and landowners in her region. More than 100,000 acres of private land have been closed to public hunters in protest, she said.

The bill has the support of the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association. The Montana Wildlife Federation opposed the measure.

“I find some of the language somewhat divisive,” said Nick Gevock, of the federation.

Gov. Steve Bullock has committed to smoothing the bad feelings and plans to employ the Public Lands/Public Wildlife Council to that end, prompting some to question whether a separate study of the issue is necessary. 

“I’m hopeful and optimistic that if we can get this process rolling, some of the 100,000 acres closed to hunters would be open by this fall,” Warburton said.

In addition to removing hunters from the bill, the committee also removed $10,000 appropriated for the work. Since the bill was amended, it will have to go back to the House to be approved.

The committee also discussed another matter that could go before the EQC — a study of the state’s hunting and fishing license fees, which the sponsor of HB 609, Rep. Patrick Connell, R-Hamilton, called “a mess.”

The bill has been supported by sporting groups, in spite of the fact that any change likely would mean raising hunting and fishing fees for residents. The hope is that the system also could be made simpler.

In an unusual show of cooperation, the oil and gas industry, ranchers, conservation and sporting groups agreed that HB 580 should be passed, providing funding for a governor’s sage grouse advisory council. The plan is to avoid listing the birds as endangered species by having a management strategy developed to ensure the birds' survival.

“I almost want to start singing 'Kumbaya,'” said Sen. John Brendan, committee chairman, of the across-the-aisle cooperation.

Later, when the committee went into executive session to consider the bill, concerns were raised about the plan’s $75,000 price tag.

“We have more checkbook than we have money,” Brendan noted.

Other committee members countered that the money would be well spent to avert the possibility that lands could be closed to oil, gas and mining development to protect sage grouse.

“This is an investment that will provide a return if done right,” said Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls.

The committee voted to reduce the funding to $45,000 and the bill was passed.

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