Early FWP bills address block management, fishing access funding

As the 65th Montana Legislature convenes on Monday, legislators have already proposed least two bills that would affect Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ shoestring budget.

After hours of hearings and counter proposals in 2015, the Legislature approved most of FWP’s proposed budget that had been developed by a working group of hunters, fishermen and outfitters. One of the major changes was having the budget cover four years, unlike previous versions that were mapped out over 10 years.

Under the new budget, FWP – which receives no general-fund money – was allowed to create a base hunting license to raise enough money to keep the department in the black. All hunters must purchase the base license before buying any hunting tag. But legislators refused other price increases that would have allowed FWP to raise any extra funds to be used for unforeseen expenses, such as monitoring grizzly bears after they are delisted.

Now halfway through the four-year period, Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, has proposed a bill that would divert a greater proportion of the base hunting-license revenue to a single purpose: FWP’s enhanced hunting access program, namely block management.

The block management program is for qualified landowners who allow public hunters on their land during the archery and regular seasons. The program pays landowners up to $12,000 each season to offset the effects of public use, such as weed control or property damage.

Flynn’s bill would funnel $5 out of every $10 resident base license to the block management program. Currently, only $2 from every license funds block management so the department would lose $3 that is now using for other programs.

According to a 2014 count, FWP sold more than 156,200 resident hunting licenses so FWP programs other than block management would lose almost a half-million if they didn’t get $8 from every base license. While hunters treasure the block management program and many agree that the landowner reimbursement should increase, the funding shift could threaten other popular programs such as fish stocking or game damage assistance.

So it’s likely this bill will run into resistance from those who support other programs.

The bill would also raise the amount of a nonresident base license that goes to the block management program by $5. But FWP wouldn’t feel that change because the bill increases the price of the nonresident license by $5.

Previous legislative attempts to increase the block management payments included trying to take money out of the Habitat Montana program, which increases hunter access by buying fee title land or conservation easements.

Another bill, House Bill 97, proposes raising the block management cap to $15,000 but doesn’t address how to pay for it.

If Flynn’s bill passes, another FWP program that could be hurt is fishing access site maintenance. Montana’s fishing access sites are all popular but some get extremely heavy use while others suffer damage from river ice or flooding. Maintenance is essential but funding determines whether a site stays in good shape or just limps along with the bare necessities.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, could help there by requiring that all watercraft or “vessels” using fishing-access sites display a $25 FAS maintenance sticker to be purchased annually. Redfield said the bill is intended to alleviate some recent problems caused by high use.

For example, a Boulder River landowner has been hostile toward several people using the Boulder Forks fishing access site south of Big Timber because he says vehicles end up blocking his road. FWP could make some site modifications to ease tensions but struggled to come up with the money.

“I’m seeing very little weed control happening, and we need improvements because we’ve been having issues at fishing access sites: over crowding and pulling onto private land; things like that. It tells me they don’t have very good access sites for some places,” Redfield said.

Redfield originally intended the majority of the money - $15 – to go toward controlling weeds at access sites. But subsequently, Montana has suffered its first infestation of nonnative mussel larvae, something that could damage the state’s recreation industry if it gets out of control. So Redfield wants to direct $10 toward weeds and $5 toward controlling aquatic invasive species.

“If we’d have been on the weeds 30 or 40 years ago like we need to get on this mussel problem, we wouldn’t have these problems,” Redfield said.

Another $9.50 of the sticker price would go toward other access-site maintenance and improvements, and local vendors who sell the stickers could keep the remaining 50 cents.

Redfield said the proposal has gotten a lot of support, including that of FWP commission chairman Dan Vermillion. He anticipates that the bill should be able to make it to the governor's desk fairly early in the session.

“I don’t want to make politics out of this. So much of the stuff we do, everyone wants to take political stances. But this is taking care of the dang river, folks,” Redfield said.

(Note: The sponsor of HB 164 was incorrectly identified in the initially published version of this story. It was changed to Rep. Kelly Flynn)