Updates to antiquated statutes related to bird dog training in Montana were approved by the Senate Fish and Game Committee on Tuesday, even though all involved said there was still more work to be done.
House Bill 29, sponsored by Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, was devised during the summer in the Environmental Quality Council. The bill attempts to make it clearer how bird dogs can be trained on public lands. The current statute says training can’t take place within a mile of nesting birds, which is impractical.
The House has already passed the measure 100-0.
The bill sprang out of concerns from dog trainers that the existing statute was onerous and unrealistic.
Ken McDonald, Wildlife Division administrator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the bill “removes some of the confounding language” but admitted “there are some improvements that could be made. We are committed to work with the trainers to evaluate any new training laws that might be advantageous.”
One of the holes in the law is that FWP has no enforcement authority over people training large groups of dogs, McDonald said.
“Right now there would be nothing illegal about that,” he said. “But the current statute was not enforceable either.”
However, no one testifying had personal knowledge of such a training event ever occurring.
The committee sailed through other bills brought before it, with no opposition, and passed them out of committee.
In hopes of “wiping away” what may have been a “black eye” for FWP wardens, Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, advocated for HB 348 to require the law enforcement agents to obtain a warrant before conducting searches.
“We must ensure our rights as a free society,” he said, and ensure no “overbearing warden” exceeds his or her authority.
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Noland was quick to point out that he does not see that happening now, but he intimated it had occurred in the past by “an overzealous warden.”
No one spoke in favor or opposed the bill, which passed the full House by a vote of 97-3.
According to Dave Loewen, FWP chief of law enforcement, for all officers — including wardens — there are exceptions where a search can be conducted without a warrant.
The panel also passed HB 239, which would allow hunters to divert the refund they receive after an unsuccessful special big game drawing to the Block Management Program, which provides hunter access to private lands. The bill would require hunters to voluntarily donate the refund amount.
Currently the program is funded almost entirely by fees paid by nonresident hunters.
Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, sponsored the measure, saying it was a good way to recognize the partnership between hunters and private landowners in the state.
HB 205, sponsored by Rep. Ray Shaw, R-Sheridan, would allow natural ponds on private property with no public access to be stocked after an FWP review. Current law did not cover some ponds, which caused concern that they may be illegally stocked, said Eileen Ryce, FWP Fisheries administrator.
FWP already issues anywhere from 250 to 450 pond stocking licenses annually. The change would only add an estimated six to 10 a year, Shaw said.
“I live in an area where we have the five best trout streams in the world,” Shaw said. “This bill just protects those waters. It's important to the economy of my area and the state.”
The committee passed the measure, which had passed the full House 97-2.