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Trespassing hunters will have to pay higher fines and nonresident upland bird hunters will now be able to buy a less expensive three-day hunting license under laws passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Steve Bullock.

Hunters caught trespassing will now have to pay a fine of $135 for a first offense, up from $25. A second offense within five years will result in a minimum of a $500 fine.

John Gibson, president of the Public Land/Water Access Association, opposed the hike, saying that if hunters were going to be penalized then landowners should be required to post their land and should be fined for illegally posting property.

A three-day nonresident upland bird license will be sold for $50. Rep. Virginia Court, D-Billings, opposed the measure seeing it as a drain on Fish, Wildlife and Parks' coffers since the license now costs $110.

The hunting and wildlife bills that survived the recently ended Montana Legislature were pretty tame compared to what was introduced — divisive measures that drew battle lines between sportsmen and conservation groups against agricultural interests and hunting outfitters. Compared to last session, however, sporting groups seemed more prepared and were quick to rally support from their membership to contact legislators or to testify.

“Basically we came out pretty good, but not because people didn’t try,” Gibson said.

“By and large we did a really good job, but it was all defense, no offense at all,” he added.

Court, who sat on the busy Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee in the House, said "a lot of the bad bills" from the last session came back again but were defeated.

"All in all I thought it was a pretty good session," she said.

Sporting groups were successful in turning back many of the bills that they found most objectionable, such as legislation that would have diverted habitat funds to a hunter access program. Although that bill died, a line item was inserted late in the session into House Bill 5 that would limit the department to only considering “term agreements,” such as leases, when considering habitat acquisition. The bill is still awaiting the governor’s approval.

Meanwhile, several bills favorable to outfitters were passed, including easing of some of the restrictions on their reporting requirements and the ability to hire assistants in emergency situations.

The sheer number of bills made the fish and game committees in the House and Senate two of the busiest of the session.

Out of 87 bills that were introduced dealing just with fish and wildlife issues, 54 died and 33 were passed by the Legislature. So far, 16 have gained Gov. Bullock’s signature. He has vetoed three bills, two of which the sponsors are seeking to override with a majority vote. The rest await action.

Relations between landowners, sportsmen, FWP and outfitters have been deteriorating for years. The reasons are several but come down to two main themes: landowners and outfitters want the state to make it easier for nonresident hunters to use private land and public wildlife for profit; sportsmen and the FWP have blocked moves to what they see as privatization of a public resource — big game animals — while pushing for greater access to public lands.

The last few legislative sessions have seen the groups clash, but this session seemed to end in a standoff, with neither group getting what it wanted.

That was certainly the case on the topic of bison management. Bison are the only wildlife in Montana overseen by the Department of Livestock. Several bills were introduced that would do everything from ban transplantation or movement of the animals within the state to an open season on those that crossed into Montana from adjacent Yellowstone National Park. Although bison advocates, FWP and Indian tribes rallied to defeat the measures, the wound remains open and festering.

“The session was a disappointment because the administration and FWP doesn’t understand what the bison issue is to us” in Eastern Montana, said Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, who sponsored one of the bison bills.

Under the Schweitzer administration, FWP was working on a state bison management plan that would have outlined how and where disease-free bison might be returned to public lands in the state. But any talk of reintroducing bison and allowing hunting of the species is not supported by Eastern Montana residents, Brenden said.

“Those people who think you can have free-roaming buffalo in a modern society are crazy,” he said.

If the state pushes ahead with its bison management plan, which has been shelved for months, Brenden said he foresees landowners locking out hunters from millions of private acres in protest.

“I’m seriously thinking of doing that with my own lands,” he said.

One thing both sides seem to be in agreement on is that Bullock’s appointment of Jeff Hagener as FWP director is a good move for the department. Hagener had led the agency under Gov. Judy Martz before being replaced by Joe Maurier.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission has also been rearranged, with three of the previous members replaced, and the group has dropped “parks” from its name as Montana State Parks begins a move to its own commission in July.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.