Congrats, Public Land Owners! We made it through the 2021 Montana Legislative Session!
Thanks to the tireless efforts from our volunteer leadership team and paid lobbyists in the Capitol - and more importantly thanks to YOU! - we were able to successfully move the needle on many of the bills that were introduced this session. The final tally? 1,313 bills were introduced in less than 90 days! How's that for a whirlwind!?
As you read through the recap below, please take note of how big of a role your letters and calls played in putting the worst bills to bed, improving others and even getting a few good ones signed into law.
Montana BHA collectively engaged in more than three dozen bills by testifying both in person at the Capitol and remotely, by submitting letters to the editors and opinion pieces to newspapers, by making phone calls to legislators and the hotline in Helena, and by 2,570 sportsmen and women sending 57,942 letters to our representatives and senators asking them to consider the voices of Montana’s sporting community. We cohosted a virtual rally for public lands, participated in a vehicle parade around Helena and talked with legislators and press on the steps of the Capitol about the importance of conservation funding. Many lawmakers heard your voices and voted accordingly; now that these citizen legislators have all returned home to their families after several long months in Helena, please be sure to thank those who stepped up and represented you properly.
More than 300 new bills have already been signed into law, with more expected in the next few days. We can assure you that we will continue to engage with the policies related to public lands and waters habitat, access and opportunity and fair chase as they start to be enforced statewide. In less than two years, we'll be back in Helena to do it all over again, and we sure hope you'll be there with us to once again offer your voice. The best ways you can show your support for our efforts are by becoming a BHA member (there's power in numbers) or by purchasing a Montana 'Backcountry' license plate, which is how the Chapter funds our lobbyists during the session.
The following is an abbreviated summary of Montana BHA’s engagement in the 2021 legislative session, including what happened, what we supported/opposed, what was tabled and what is now law.
First, some good news! BILLS THAT MONTANA BHA OPPOSED THAT DIED:
HB 505 – Rep. Galt (R-Martinsdale) - This bill would have given any landowner owning more than 640 acres in a unit at elk objective up to 10 transferable, non-resident either sex elk tags (so bull tags). Additionally, the bill would have created a system where private land cow hunters would have been rewarded with five bonus points each year, completely skewing Montana's equitable opportunity system. The bill was amended briefly but public land hunters showed up in force for this one (#HaltGaltsHB505). Dozens of BHA members testified against this bill in person, we sent in 6,336 of letters, made hundreds of phone calls and wrote opinion pieces as well. It was quickly tabled in committee before missing the transmittal deadline.
SB 143 – Sen. Ellsworth (R-Hamilton) - At first, this bill would have guaranteed 60% of non-resident deer and elk combo licenses go to outfitters and their clients, essentially overturning the voter-approved I-161 from 2010. We strongly opposed, testifying at the hearings, lobbying in the halls, submitting opinion pieces and providing members opportunities to comment through action alerts. The bill passed Senate Fish and Game Committee 7-4 but our voices were heard as it was amended for the better on the Senate floor (removed the guarantees and instead pushed the application and draw dates back a few months, given potential outfitter clients more time to connect with guides, but the outfitters association did not support the changes since there were no guarantees. The bill then died in the Senate Finance & Claims Committee and missed the transmittal deadline. Disappointingly, however, ideas from the defeated SB 143 resurfaced in the 2nd to last day of the session with changes to HB 637 (more on that below).
SB 111 – Sen. Molnar (R-Laurel) - Would have allowed the use of crossbows during the general archery season by persons with disabilities. We opposed SB 111 because the Fish and Wildlife Commission should make such decisions and bowhunters with limitations already have access to the Permit to Modify Archery Equipment (PTMAE). MT BHA provided oppositional testimony, and lobbied the bill in the halls, watching the bill closely with multiple attempts to revive it in the waning days of the session. The bill was tabled in the House Human Services Committee, then a motion to reconsider failed as did a blast motion on the House Floor.
HB 241 – Rep. Read (R-Polson) - Would have revised hunting laws related to tribal boundaries, undermining tribal sovereignty and putting at risk the incredible fishing and upland bird hunting opportunities appreciated currently. Tribal members led the charge in defeating this bill, but we were happy to lend a hand in opposition with testimony, opinion pieces and hundreds of letters from our members. It was tabled by the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee.
HB 281 – Rep. Gunderson (R-Libby) - Would have allowed "electronically assisted bicycles" (e-bikes) to be used on non-motorized trails and pathways that are currently open to traditional bikes. We opposed this bill in committees and offered amendments that would have put our concerns to rest, but ultimately the bill failed on the Senate Floor 25-25.
HB 320 – Rep. Gunderson (R-Libby) - This bill was deceptive but the intent was clear: it would have encouraged the transfer (and eventually the sale) of public lands by temporarily prohibiting the sale of federal lands that are transferred to the state. We vehemently opposed this with testimony and BHA members sent in more than 4,000 letters. It passed the House Natural Resources Committee 9-6 and narrowly passed the Full House 51-49. Fortunately, it was tabled in Senate Natural Resources Committee.
SB 260 - Sen. Fitzpatrick (R - Great Falls) - A takings bill, this legislation would have had significant, negative impacts on everything from environmental protections to wildlife management. We delivered a letter to each and every state Representative on the House Floor explaining our opposition and the detrimental impacts this bill would have on Montana. The bill failed on the House Floor.
HB 352 – Rep. J. Hinkle (R-Belgrade) - Would have required public access for any conservation easement using public funding. While this sounds like a good idea at face value, it would have effectively killed conservation easements in Montana by forcing landowners to include public access as a requirement in order to conserve their property. We always encourage public access, but it would be unfair and unwise to mandate this. Montana’s fish and wildlife, and thereby hunters and anglers, still benefit from conservation projects that do not include access. We sent a letter carefully explaining our opposition to this bill. It was tabled by the House Fish, Wildlife Parks Committee.
HB 677 - Rep. Bartel (R - Lewistown) - Would have prevented nonprofit organizations from purchasing agricultural land. We opposed this bill from a conservation and habitat protection standpoint, as did many other conservation groups such as Pheasants Forever and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The bill was tabled in the House Agriculture Committee.
HB 695 - Rep. Loge (R - St. Regis) - Would have revised environmental laws, going as far as allowing state agencies to charge individuals or organizations to provide public comment on environmental impact statements. The bill was amended before it died in the Senate.
HB 697 - Rep. Kassmier (R-Fort Benton) - Would have used hunter license dollars to pay for crop damage from elk in units over objectives. We opposed this bill for a few reasons, first being the massive hit this would mean for federal funding from Pittman-Robertson, at an estimated $28 million lost. Secondly, while we're happy to support landowners, we'd prefer to see license dollars be spent on properties that provide public access and utilize some of the equitable tools to control elk numbers already at their disposal, like FWP's hunt damage roster program. The bill was amended to help address some of our concerns, but ultimately died in House Appropriations.
HB 417 – Rep. Kassmier (R-Fort Benton) - Would have prohibited FWP from offering limited permits in any hunting districts over objective for elk, deer or antelope. This would have eliminated many of Montana's most coveted hunting permits including Missouri River Breaks bull tags. Hunters showed up for this one, making phone calls and sending letters (BHA members sent nearly 6,500 emails on this bill alone!). The bill was withdrawn by the sponsor before it even had a hearing.
HB 418 – Rep. Gunderson (R-Libby) - Would have created a fund and a process to maintain federal right-of-ways granted by RS 2477, a federal law from 1866 used to settle the West. This law was repealed in 1976, yet motorized interest groups continue to use this in attempts to gain off-road vehicle access into areas they are no longer allowed, through both public and private lands. It's worth noting that there is already an avenue to challenge these right-of-ways, and in our opposition we argued that the state should not be paying for these legal costs. The bill passed the House Natural Resources Committee 9-6 but then failed 2nd reading on the House Floor 50-50.
HB 670 – Rep. Skees (R-Kalispell) – This bill would have stripped all of the conservation funding from the voter-approved I-190, directing one-third of all tax revenues to a trust fund account where the interest would be used to pay for "social and economic costs of marijuana" and the other two-thirds to public employee retirement pensions. The bill passed the House 66-33 on a party line vote before it was tabled by the Senate Select Committee on Marijuana Law.
Some more good news! BILLS MONTANA BHA SUPPORTED THAT PASSED:
SB 60 – Sen. Flowers (D-Belgrade) - Requires trapper education for certain resident trappers. We provided testimony in support of this bill. It passed Senate Fish and Game 7-0; Senate 39-11; House Fish, Wildlife and Parks 18-0; House 98-0. The bill requiring trapping education was signed into law by Gov. Gianforte with darn near unanimous support.
SB 62 – Sen. Bob Brown (R-Thompson Falls) - Revises unlawful possession laws giving our wardens a bit more teeth in enforcing the worst kind of wasteful poaching cases. We provided testimony in support of this bill. It passed Senate Fish and Game 11-0; Senate 50-0; House Fish, Wildlife and Parks 18-0; House 99-0 and then signed into law by Gov. Gianforte without a single vote against it.
HB 353 – Rep. Gunderson (R-Libby) - Authorizes replacement hunting license if wild game is determined unfit for human consumption by FWP. Hunters would be required to forfeit the entire animal and the intent of the bill is to encourage proper testing of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). We offered testimony in support of this bill after it was amended to protect against abuse. Gov. Gianforte has signed it into law.
HB 647 – Rep. Matt Reiger (R-Kalispell) - Allows nonresident students to purchase licenses at resident fee rates. BHA student groups at UM and MSU helped lead the efforts to pass this bill, providing testimony before the committees. It was signed into law by Gov. Gianforte.
Somewhat good news! BILLS MONTANA BHA OPPOSED THAT WERE IMPROVED THROUGH AMENDMENTS:
SB 115 – Sen. Keith Reiger (R-Kalispell) - Requires that the Montana Land Board approve FWP conservation easements (in addition to the FW Commission). We believe this bill adds unnecessary red tape and uncertainty to the process, and we opposed this legislation every step of the way with alerts, testimony and a veto request. While the bill was signed into law, our voices did make a difference as it was amended for the better through the process when the financial bar was raised for what easements would need this extra level of approval and language was added to encourage the Land Board to engage earlier in the process.
SB 153 – Rep. Welborn (R-Dillon) - Originally, the bill would have transferred administration of fishing access sites and Wildlife Management Areas to the State Parks Board away from FWP. We couldn't support that. However, amendments were added to remove that language, and the final version of the bill simply requires that at least two State Parks Board members be business owners with one being a recreation-related business owner, it requires the purchase of a conservation license for users of certain state lands (State Parks exempted), and it decreases that fee from $8 to $6. Once the bill was amended, MT BHA’s position switched from oppose to support. The bill passed the Senate but ultimately failed in the House.
SB 306 – Sen. Lang (R-Malta) - Expands the Fish and Wildlife Commission to seven members and changes the requirements of certain members. The part of the bill we took issue with was the original requirement that at least four (of the seven) Commissioners be 'landowners engaged in agriculture production.' This seems inappropriate as no other user group, biologists, ecologists, hunters, or anglers have guaranteed representation on the Commission. We opposed this bill strongly with testimony, letters, phone calls and more before it was amended down to require that only two commissioners be engaged in agriculture production. Unfortunately, in the last few days of the session, this was amended again to three, a compromise of sorts, but one that we still take issue with. The bill is awaiting the signature of the Governor.
SB 354 – Sen. Hinebauch (R-Wibaux) Revises laws related to land servitude. This bill created quite a stir when it was amended in the House by Rep. Usher (R-Billings) in an attempt to practically end prescriptive easements to reach public lands and cut off public access. Public access advocates - particularly the fly fishing community fearing our beloved stream access would be at risk - spoke up in unison before the Senate unanimously rejected these amendments. However, a six-person free conference committee then made the bill even worse! Once again, we sounded the alarm and public land owners spoke up; the Senate rejected the amendments once again before the free conference committee finally agreed to return the bill to its original language before Rep. Usher's amendments. The bill has now been signed into law by Gov. Gianforte.
SB 360 – Sen. Lang (R-Malta) - Would have directed FWP to improve and enhance fishing opportunities for "fish species of greatest importance" and rev up the state's hatchery and stocking efforts significantly. We took issue with this bill before good amendments were added which now direct FWP to simply assess and update their fisheries management plan and calls for public involvement. Surprisingly, the bill was vetoed by Gov. Gianforte on May 14th.
HB 701 – Rep. Hopkins (R-Missoula) – Amends the voter-approved I-190 which legalizes, taxes and regulates recreational marijuana and funds conservation programs. Originally, the bill had little money for conservation programs and completely stripped the I-190 funding dedicated to Habitat Montana. MT BHA advocated for restoration of that funding as the voters intended, initially opposing the bill and then supporting it once it was amended in the Senate Select Committee on Marijuana Law to restore most of the conservation funding. MT BHA provided testimony in hearings, lobbied the bill in the Capitol and mobilized members through action alerts to successfully restore funding for Habitat Montana, non-game species, trails and state parks. The bill is awaiting the signature of the Governor.
There were other budgeting bills re: I-190 revenue that we engaged in as well (HB 670, HB 683, HB 707), but this is a solid summary of our actions and explanations, and HB 701 was the only one that gained our support and passed the legislature.
Now, for the not-so-good news... BILLS MONTANA BHA SUPPORTED THAT DIED:
SB 2 – Sen. Cohenour (D-Helena) - Would have required FWP, when responding to a request for fish and wildlife data, to release a discrete amount and scope so as to prevent misuse. This bill was all about fair chase, maintaining quality experiences for all, and properly managing fish and wildlife data. We offered testimony in support but the bill was tabled in Senate Fish & Game.
HB 147 – Rep. France (D-Missoula) - Would have established the Montana Hunters and Anglers Community Fund, a voluntary program to allow license buyers to donate $10 or more in support of Montana's rural communities. MT BHA provided testimony in support of this bill. It passed House Fish, Wildlife and Parks 11-7 but failed on 2nd reading in the House 49-51.
SB 255 – Sen. Flowers (D-Belgrade) - Would have created revenue for bison management funding by offering an annual lottery to hunt a wild bison. MT BHA supported this idea but it was tabled in Senate Fish and Game Committee.
SB 256 – Sen. Flowers (D-Belgrade) - Would have added 'illegally gating a public road' as a form of harassment, giving law enforcement and prosecutors more tools to defend public access from those who illegally block public roads. We testified in support and placed a guest column explaining the issue. The bill was tabled in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
SR 61 – Sen. Hinebauch (R- Wibaux) - Would have confirmed Andrew McKean from Glasgow, MT to the Fish and Wildlife Commission. Sportsmen - and all who testified, including Montana BHA - overwhelmingly supported Andrew McKean yet Sen. Hinebauch admitted that "the governor wants to have some change in philosophy, and he prefers to have someone else, so that’s the route we're gonna go." The resolution was not supported by Senate Fish & Game Committee 7-4, and the adverse committee report was adopted by the Senate 31-18. Both votes were along party lines and the resolution died in the Senate.
HJ 3 – Rep. Tom France (D-Missoula) - Would have created a resolution asking the federal government to collect a fee at local National Parks (Glacier, Grand Teton and Yellowstone) entrances to contribute to state and tribal wildlife management, a chance for additional public lands users, beyond hunters and anglers, to pay into wildlife management. We offered testimony in support before it was tabled by House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations.
More bad news... BILLS MONTANA BHA OPPOSED THAT PASSED:
SB 275 – Sen. Welborn (R-Dillon) - Revises four laws currently under the authority of the Board of Outfitters. 1) Changes the makeup of the Board of Outfitters; 2) Removes the law stating that records need to be submitted to the Board of Outfitters; 3) Allows for the partial sale or temporary transfer of a hunting or fishing outfitter’s business; and, 4) Removes the double adjudication of violations from the Board of Outfitters. We delivered oppositional testimony for two reasons: one, it places outfitters above the law, and removes any accountability for their industry, and two, it removes the requirement to include two sportspersons on the board. Unfortunately, it passed and has been signed into law by the Governor.
SJ 7 – Sen. Welborn (R-Dillon) - Asks our federal delegation to remove Hidden Pasture Creek from its wilderness study area classifciation. This puts the recently transplanted bighorn sheep at risk and undermines the bipartisan recommendation from the interim EQC to take a collaborative approach to address these WSAs. BHA sent a letter of opposition and worked with coalition partners to oppose this. Unfortunately, it passed the legislature and does not require the signature of the Governor.
SB 358 - Sen. John Esp (R - Big Timber) - Repeals numeric nutrient standards for water quality in Montana's waterways. We sent a letter detailing our concerns with this bill that aims to allow more nutrient pollution in our waterways. Unfortunately the bill passed and has been signed into law.
HB 242 – Rep. C. Hinkle (R-Belgrade) - This bill establishes a muzzleloader hunting season in statute. Our initial reaction was to support this bill because of added opportunity, but after further review we withdrew our support and opposed it because the legislature should not be setting these seasons or weapon restrictions in statute. Also, Montana's big game deserve a break after six weeks of archery-only hunting and five weeks of the general big game rifle season. The bill has been signed into law.
HB 302 – Rep. Kassmier (R-Ft. Benton) - Requires county-commission approval to relocate bison. We opposed this bill citing that wildlife management decisions should be left to wildlife managers and biologists with a deep understanding of wildlife issues, and requiring county-commission approval for wildlife management sets a dangerous precedent. Unfortunately, it passed and has been signed into law.
HB 318 – Rep Holmlund (R-Miles City) - Changes the definition of 'wild bison' in a way that would forever prevent bison from being classified as 'wild' and therefore managed by FWP. We provided oppositional testimony in the hearings before it unfortunately passed and was signed into law.
HB 637 – Rep. Burglee (R-Joilet) This bill was billed as an FWP "clean up" bill and it did address some innocuous issues like allowing FWP wardens to take a vehicle into possession if abandoned on state land. However, the 32-page bill is a mess. It also includes some concerning changes like allowing landowners who own more than 640 acres to go out and invite their ‘non-paying guests” to hunt mountain lions without a hound license, including on adjacent public land, and using $1 million in license dollars to fund pen-raised pheasant transplants instead of habitat improvements. Worse yet, the bill was amended in conference committee on the second-to-last day of the session to include language from the very problematic SB 143, which had already been killed. The bill was then rushed through both chambers of the legislature, each voting twice, all in less than twelve hours from being amended, all without public comment, public testimony or a public hearing. In total, Montana BHA members have sent 12,457 letters and counting opposing this bill through the process, and we asked Governor Gianforte to veto this bill. He signed it on May 14th.
In the end...
Our team of board volunteers, two lobbyists and you all stood up and made our voices heard on these issues. Each bill brought its own complexities and challenges and very tight timelines to engage, but you spoke up! We're incredibly proud of and thankful for our engaged membership!
Of course, our engagement doesn’t stop here as many of these bills become law and many of the other ideas will continue to percolate. It's more important than ever that we engage in the interim, that we get to know our elected officials, that we show up for FWP Commission meetings and that we make our voices heard on policy, both the state issues and the federal ones.
We hope to see you all around the campfire at BHA's Rendezvous in Missoula in just a few short weeks.