We're ending transmittal break, the halfway mark of the 2023 legislative session.
In the first 45 days, Montana BHA has provided testimony on and helped influence the outcomes of 39 individual bills impacting your wild public lands, waters and wildlife.
This represents a mountain of work both inside and outside the Capitol by your Montana BHA volunteer board members, by our two lobbyists in Helena, and by you, the active and engaged Montana BHA members making your voices heard. So thank you!
Below is a recap of what went down, where things stand, what’s still to come and - most importantly - how you can get involved.
First, the good news. Here are some bills Montana BHA has supported that are still alive and well. Don’t get complacent though. It’s important that we continue to show up for these:
HB 486 - Generally revise county road access laws - sponsored by Rep. Green (R - Hardin). Led by Montana BHA and PLWA, this bill would increase the fine for illegally blocking public roads. Learn more and take action in support here. The bill passed the House. Montana BHA board member added some context to why we need this bill in an op-ed.
SB 58 - Increase landowner payment cap for block management - requested by FWP and sponsored by Sen. Hinebauch (R - Wibaux). Here's more on our strong support of this bill which has passed the Senate.
HB 74 - Eliminate requirement to release pheasants from Upland Game Bird Program - requested by FWP and sponsored by Rep. Fitzgerald (R - Fairfield). Not to be confused with the prison pheasant program, this bill recognizes that there is little to no interest from landowners in releasing pen-raised birds on their properties, so it allows FWP to use these monies on habitat instead. It passed the House.
HB 547 - Provide penalties for selling data/images from trail cams on public land - sponsored by Rep. Cohenour (D - East Helena). Montana BHA life member Steve Platt penned a great op-ed explaining our support of this bill. It passed the House.
HB 548 - Revise penalties for criminal trespass while collecting antlers/sheds/horns - sponsored by Rep. Cohenour (D - East Helena). This bill would create fair and meaningful penalties (second offense) for trespassers looking for sheds. It passed the House.
HB 593 - Revise FWP laws related to publishing the number of nonresident licenses - sponsored by Rep. Marler (D - Missoula). This bill would simply require that FWP clearly report on the number of nonresident licenses sold each year. There's been a lot of confusion around this lately, and this bill should clear some of that up. It passed the house.
HB 596 - Revise elk hunting access agreement licenses - sponsored by Rep. Loge (R - St. Regis). This represents yet another improvement to the controversial 454 program. Our support depended on an amendment to make these valid on deeded lands or private-land-only that is leased for agricultural purposes. The amendment was made and the bill passed the House.
HB 383 - Establish the Montana hunters and anglers community fund - sponsored by Rep. France (D - Missoula). This bill seeks to create a voluntary fund where sportsmen and women can contribute to help small rural towns who open their doors to us through the hunting and fishing seasons. The bill has passed committee but since it’s a revenue bill, it didn’t need to clear the House quite yet.
SB 84 - Revise laws related to hunting and aircraft use - requested by FWP and sponsored by Sen. Brown (R - Trout Creek). Here's a letter-to-the-editor explaining our support from Montana BHA board member Corey Ellis. The bill passed the Senate and has been transmitted to the House.
HB 133 - Allow nonresident college students to purchase FWP licenses online - requested by FWP/EQC and sponsored by Rep. Miner (R - Stockett). This cleanup bill allows college students to buy licenses online just like anyone else. The bill flew through both chambers and is on its way to the Governor's desk.
SB 281 - Revise laws related to nonresident hunting and fishing - sponsored by Sen. Flowers (D - Belgrade). In an effort to reduce nonresident crowding, his bill limits the number of antlerless deer licenses nonresidents can purchase to one or two per hunter. FWP estimates this will reduce the number of licenses sold by 779, but may not reduce the number of hunters at all. It passed the Senate.
HB 86 - Remove sunset for the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program - requested by FWP and sponsored by Rep. Walsh (R - Twin Bridges). The bill flew through both chambers nearly unanimously and is on its way to the Governor's desk.
SB 76 - Remove requirement to attach paper tags to a game animal carcass - requested by FWP and sponsored by Sen. McClafferty (D - Butte). The bill passed the Senate unanimously and has been transmitted to the House.
SB 388 - Revise nonresident bird hunting - sponsored by Sen. Flowers (D - Belgrade). In another effort to reduce nonresident hunter crowding, this bill limits the amount of time nonresident upland bird hunters can hunt in Montana to 28 days. According to FWP’s fiscal analysis however, this bill is not expected to reduce the number of nonresident bird hunters in Montana, just potentially how long they hunt. It passed the Senate unanimously.
HB 243 - Revise hunter education laws - sponsored by Rep. Marler (D - Missoula). Read more from Montana BHA member Marty Maddalena on why this is a good move for the hunting community. The bill passed the House.
HB 162 - Revise electronic tag law - requested by FWP/EQC and sponsored by Rep. Mitchell (R - Columbia Falls). This bill flew through both chambers unanimously and is on its way to the Governor's desk.
Next, the worst news. These are bills we oppose that have passed transmittal or are revenue bills that are still alive. These are the biggest known threats of the session. We need to speak up and show up to stop these from becoming law.
HB 462 - Revise distribution of marijuana revenues - sponsored by Rep. Bertoglio (R - Clancy). This bill mirrors Governor Ginaforte’s budget proposal and would zero out the Habitat Montana money from the marijuana tax revenue approved by the voters and by the legislature in 2021. Watch this video to learn more, and then please consider taking action here. As this article explains, the entire bill rests on a false narrative.
Two more bills - HB 669 sponsored by Rep. Mercer (R - Billings) and SB 442 sponsored by Sen. Lang (R - Malta) would also gut this Habitat Montana money, though we believe HB 462 is the most likely vehicle for this portion of the budget to be addressed. These two bills are likely dead.
HB 473 - Provide selenium standard for Lake Koocanusa - sponsored by Rep. Gunderson (R - Libby). This bill would allow greater levels of pollution in Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River. Learn more here. The bill passed the House.
HB 635 - Revise laws related to nonresident hunting and fishing - sponsored by Rep. Kassmier (R - Fort Benton). This bill would award large non-resident landowners with 15% of the elk tags. Proponents of the bill seem willing to ignore the North American Model of Widllife Conservation for what they hope to be a reduced number of hunters on public land. We think this is misguided, unlikely to have much impact on crowding, and opens the door for other guarantees in the process. Take action asking your state senator to oppose this here. The bill narrowly passed the House.
HB 522 - Provide landowner preference bison tags for landowners near YNP - sponsored by Rep. Malone (R - Pray). This would allow landowners near YNP owning just twenty acres preferential treatment for 15% of the bison tag allocations. The bill was amended on the floor to be applicable on private lands only, and the 15% of the tags be in addition to the biological-approved quota rather than part of it. It passed the House. Montana BHA continues to oppose for these reasons.
SJ 14 - Resolution opposing bison introduction at Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge - sponsored by Sen. Lang (R - Malta). This bill would send a message to the federal government that Montana's state lawmakers do not want wild bison reintroduced on the CMR. We disagree. The bill passed committee and the Senate Floor on party lines.
HB 600 - Revise acreage for landowner preference hunting licenses - sponsored by Rep. Malone (R - Pray). This bill lowers the acreage requirement for landowners from 640 acres to 160 acres. We opposed and asked, at the very least, these licenses be valid on private lands only rather than district wide, public and private. The amendment request was not considered. It has passed the House.
HB 146 - Create landowner preference to hunt deer and antelope - requested by FWP/EQC and sponsored by Rep. Kassmier (R - Fort Benton). While we acknowledged that this practice is already in rule, we opposed the bill and suggested some amendments to the Senate Fish & Game that would help to earn our support, like making these valid on private lands only rather than district-wide public and private. The bill passed the House and is currently being considered by Senate Fish & Game.
Back to some good news. Here are some bills we opposed that didn’t meet transmittal or were tabled. Again, not 100% dead, but unlikely to come back:
SB 357 - Require terms for conservation easements using state funds - sponsored by Sen. Hinebauch (R - Wibaux). This bill would have unnecessarily limited Habitat Montana conservation easements to 40-year terms or less. Read more on this bad idea from Montana BHA board member Chris McCarthy. Thankfully, this bill died in the very same committee that Sen. Hinebauch chairs. Here's more on this from the Montana Free Press.
SB 497 - Revise property laws relating to easements - sponsored by Sen. Fitzpatrick (R - Great Falls). While this was originally under the stream access code, it was amended on the Senate Floor to fall under a different code. But it was just as problematic as it was always a direct attack on public access, specifically prescriptive easements. Outcry over this bill was swift and great (thank you to all who spoke up!). It was voted down on the Senate Floor and indefinitely postponed.
SB 298 - Revise laws related to hunting by disabled persons - sponsored by Sen. Molnar (R - Laurel). For the 10th session in a row, this bill attempted to legalize the use of crossbows during Montana’s archery season. When surveyed this fall, only 12% of our Montana membership supported this idea, but our opposition wasn’t based specifically on our membership's opposition to crossbows in the archery season; it was because of all the other problematic language folded into the bill including the ability for permit holders to pick any district they wanted if a doctor first denied their claim, and a strikethrough for the requirement that permit-to-hunt-from-a-vehicle recipients hunt with a companion, for example. It failed in committee.
HB 261 - Revise e-bike laws - sponsored by Rep. Gunderson (R - Libby). This bill was confusing, unnecessary and problematic. It failed to pass on the House Floor.
SB 342 - Revise bicycle law - sponsored by Sen. Hertz (R - Polson). This bill would have changed the definition of a bicycle. It failed to pass on the House Floor.
SB 428 - Elect fish and wildlife commissioners - sponsored by Sen. Molnar (R - Laurel). The bill attempted to make the commissioners elected rather than appointed. While imperfect, the current system is less problematic than this would have been. The bill was tabled unanimously in committee.
SB 305 - Revise definition of nonresident related to hunting and fishing licenses - sponsored by Sen. McGillvray (R - Billings). This bill attempted to expand the definition of nonresident relatives of a resident who would qualify for the discounted and over-and-above-the-cap licenses. The bill failed in committee.
And finally, more not-so-good news. Here are good bills that have been tabled. While nothing is truly dead ‘til the end of the session, these are very likely not going to see the light of day. If they’re resurrected, we’ll let you know.
SB 408 - Revise public access laws related to tax credits and incentives - sponsored by Sen. Molnar (R - Laurel). This bill would have allowed landowners to open access to landlocked public lands regardless of who held the grazing lease. Read more about this from Montana BHA life member Mike Mershon. Unfortunately, this bill died in Committee.
HB 621 - Revise land access laws for hunting and fishing - sponsored by Rep. Cohenour (D - East Helena). In an effort to both improve hunter behavior and penalize those who block public access, this bill would have put more teeth into ‘failure to obtain permission to hunt’ citations as well as ‘hunter harassment.’ It failed in committee.
HB 677 - Generally revise bird hunting season laws related to bird dog training - sponsored by Rep. France (D - Missoula). This bill would have created a limited season for commercial bird dog training on public lands. It was tabled in committee.
HB 757 - Consideration of wildlife friendly fencing on public land - sponsored by Rep. Gunderson (R - Libby). This bill - cosponsored by Rep. France, who actually presented it in committee - would have simply required FWP and DNRC to ‘consider’ wildlife friendly fences. Inexplicably, it was tabled in committee.
HB 773 - Generally revise fish and wildlife laws - sponsored by Rep. Karlen (D - Missoula). This bill attempted to address nonresident hunter crowding in an impactful way by capping the number of nonresidents who could take advantage of the over-and-above-the-cap discounted nonresident youth licenses. It was tabled in committee.
HJ 8 - Joint resolution regarding Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks - sponsored by Rep. France (D - Missoula). This bill would have encouraged the federal government to consider a fee charged at YNP and GNP to help fund wildlife management in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. It was tabled in committee.
SB 418 - Incentives for trust land lessees to provide public access - sponsored by Sen. Molnar (R - Laurel). This bill would have created an incentive for lease holders to allow public access to leased public lands. It was tabled in committee.
What’s yet to come?
Montana BHA has been working on a real and reasonable solution to address nonresident hunter crowding. We expect Senator Flowers (D-Belgrade) to introduce the Montana Hunters First bill soon. Read more about what this legislation would do. Your voice will be needed to get this through, so stay tuned on ways to engage.
We're also tracking upcoming bills that would phase out the prison's pheasant rearing program, amend Montana’s Constitution, potentially impact the legality of corner crossing, and more.
Be sure to check your email and follow us on Instagram or join our Facebook Group for updates. And don't forget, Rendezvous is NEXT WEEKEND in Missoula! Please join us!
How to Help
Make your voice heard inside the building where the decisions are made! Making phone calls and sending emails to your representatives or committee members, providing online testimony or delivering in person or virtually during hearings are all impactful options. Learn more here.
Make your voice heard outside the building! Penning letters to the editor, sharing social media posts, submitting opinion pieces, or just having discussions at the dinner table, at Rendezvous or at the bar are all impactful ways to generate actions from the outside in.
Support our efforts in Helena! Our two part-time lobbyists, two staff and dozen volunteer leaders are working hard in the Capitol and across the state. You can help by joining or renewing your BHA membership, by buying Montana BHA license plates, rocking our latest merchandise, or buying a raffle ticket to win an Adipose drift boat! Every little bit helps, and we greatly appreciate your support.
Stay tuned for more ways to engage and actions to take to protect our Montana sporting heritage.
-The Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers