Wildlife and natural resources are always prominent issues at the Montana Legislature, and this session has featured its share of bills on wolves, bears, coyotes, elk, parks and trails.
All policy bills needed to be advanced by the transmittal break last week, while bills that include revenue face a later deadline. A number of bills seeking to increase wolf hunting and trapping have advanced, while efforts to curb trapping and the killing methods of coyotes were voted down. Lawmakers have endorsed bills to increase elk harvest in shoulder seasons, as well as a resolution to remove grizzly bears from federal protections. And a bill to outlaw the sale of wildlife location data has sailed through one chamber on its way to the next.
House Bill 161
HB 161, brought by Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, proposed to prohibit the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks from weighing public comment in its decision-making processes.
“At end of the day we want to use science, not emotion, to determine what the best outcomes are,” he said in defense of the bill during its hearing.
HB 161 saw opposition from conservation groups who believed social science plays an important role in wildlife management.
Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, supported the bill, saying he believed it was appropriate to set the legislative intent of policy at state agencies.
The bill failed to make it out of committee on a split vote.
Bob Brown wolf bills
Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, brought a slew of bills aimed at putting more wolf tags in hunters’ pockets and incentivizing wolf harvest by trappers.
HB 279 allows private reimbursement to wolf trappers for their expenses. The program is based on a similar effort in Idaho funded by the Foundation for Wildlife Management and is needed, Brown said, to reduce wolves in northwest Montana where deer and elk numbers are down.
The bill drew debate on ethical grounds, but rallied through the House on mostly party lines, passing committee and the main chamber on its way to the Senate.
HB 280 and HB 281 dealt directly with wolf licenses and have seen stronger support. The bills add discounted wolf tags to resident and nonresident combination licenses and easily passed the House.
Brown's HB 551 has been more controversial and would allow hunting wolves at night. The bill again drew ethical concerns about fair chase, but narrowly passed committee with an amendment restricting nighttime hunting to private land to alleviate safety concerns before dying on the House floor.
Rep. Becky Beard, R-Elliston, has seen strong support for her HB 291. The bill creates a voluntary donation program for wolf mitigation.
Donations will be collected both by FWP and the Montana Department of Livestock, with options for direct donations or donations at the time of purchasing a hunting license. The funding will be used for USDA Wildlife Services to address problem wolves.
Wylie Galt elk bills
House Joint Resolution 18 encourages FWP and the commission to adopt more aggressive policies when it comes to areas overpopulated with elk. Among the resolution's early provisions were the sale of additional elk tags and allowing “party” hunting, or essentially allowing someone to tag an elk harvested by another hunter.
Once on the House floor, the resolution was amended to remove the party hunting provision and passed the House mostly along party lines.
Rep. Galt, R-Martinsdale, also brought HB 497, which would allow hunters to harvest more than two elk per season. The bill was aimed at reducing elk numbers in overpopulated areas where shoulder hunts take place, and passed mostly on party lines.
Rep. Bridget Smith, D-Wolf Point, brought HB 287 to address safety concerns related to trapping. The bill would require trappers to check their traps daily, and saw support from trapping opponents but opposition from trappers and livestock interests.
Smith offered amendments to the bill, including extending the check to 48 hours and also banning snares from public lands, before it was voted down in committee.
Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, saw strong support among motorized and nonmotorized trail users for SB 24. The bill increases an optional vehicle registration fee to provide additional funding for state parks and fishing access sites, as well as to create a new grant program for trail projects.
The bill ran into a hurdle in committee when Republicans voted to table it due to opposition to the fee being an opt-out rather than an opt-in. Gauthier took to the House floor and succeeded in voting SB 24 onto the floor. While it has not yet passed the Senate, it saw a 31-19 vote in favor on its second reading.
Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, was concerned about enterprises in other states that have begun selling location data for wildlife. Specifically, she is concerned about people using trail cameras to photograph trophy wildlife and then offering to sell those locations for a fee.
The bill has seen support as promoting ethics and easily passed through the Senate.
Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, believes grizzly bears in Montana warrant delisting from the Endangered Species Act. SJ 6 is a chance to “celebrate the success” of grizzly bear recovery, but it is time for the bruin to be under state management, he said during a two-hour hearing. The resolution encourages delisting either through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or through Congress.
Debate centered on the legality of delisting all bears in the state, particularly with struggling populations in the Cabinet-Yaak region. Opponents also argued against using Congress as the means of delisting, saying it goes against the intent of the ESA.
Following amendments, Cuffe’s bill has gained major traction in the Senate, passing committee unanimously and earning the vote of 38 of 50 senators on the way to the House.
Mike Phillips wolf and coyote bills
Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, brought HB 185 in an effort to provide a buffer around the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park from wolf hunting and trapping. He argued that some wolves have an “outsized value” when it comes to tourism and that the animals’ comfort around humans means hunting them lacks fair chase.
The bill saw opposition from both hunting and livestock groups. Hunting groups felt game management decisions were best left to FWP while livestock groups brought concerns that it would effectively expand the boundaries of the park.
HB 185 was voted down in committee.
Philips also brought SB 186 and 187, bills that would ban predator derbies and the use of vehicles to kill predators respectively.
The first bill saw a mix of support from conservation groups concerned about ethics and opposition from livestock interests who believed the derbies provide control of species such as coyotes, particularly around calving.
The second bill saw no opposition as supporters advocated for it on ethical grounds. FWP confirmed the existence of videos of snowmobilers intentionally running over coyotes, but it was unclear if current animal abuse laws would already apply.
Both bills were tabled in committee along party lines.