Constitutional amendment protecting sportsmen could shackle FWP

Sportsmen’s groups came out in force Thursday to testify on a bill that would add more harvest-heritage language to the Montana Constitution, but they weren’t all on the same side.

Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, presented Senate Bill 236 as a means to thwart the national “anti-hunting lobby” by creating a constitutional amendment that would further strengthen sections dealing with fish and wildlife harvest. Although some speakers were concerned about the future of hunting, the majority of the discussion showed the bill was the result of recent challenges to trapping.

“Some will argue that we don’t need this change,” Fielder said. “But just in Montana alone, three attempts have been made to ban trapping. The latest attempt, I-177, was defeated when a majority of Montanans said we shouldn’t ban trapping on public lands. But it took a great deal of effort to educate Montanans on why it would be bad.”

Some say any change to the constitution should be made with the utmost care and only when necessary, because the constitution carries more weight that other laws. That's why passage requires a two-thirds vote instead of a simple majority in the Legislature and why related initiatives require more signatures.

In this case, the constitution already protects Montana's harvest heritage. Section 9 of the Montana Constitution says, “The opportunity to harvest wild fish and wild game animals is a heritage that shall forever be preserved to the individual citizens of the state and does not create a right to trespass on private property or diminution of other private rights.”

Fielder’s bill would modify that statement to define hunting, fishing and trapping as a “right essential to pursuing life’s basic necessities.”

That caught Sen. Mike Phillips’ attention, and he asked if Fielder was implying that everyone was harvesting for subsistence. Fielder said she chose that languge to stress that it’s an important right, “not just something fun to do.”

Most of the 11 who spoke in favor - including representatives of the Montana Trappers Association, Safari Club International and Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife - said the bill was needed to keep animal-rights groups from sponsoring more anti-trapping or anti-hunting initiatives that would go before Montana voters. Then with a twist of irony, they pleaded with the Senate Fish and Game committee pass SB236 so it could go on the ballot.

“This bill merely asks the Legislature to approve allowing the citizens to vote. If you’re afraid of allowing the citizens to vote, then you’ll vote no. But if you trust the citizens, then you would want to vote yes to allow them to express themselves,” said Bob Gilbert of Walleyes of Montana.

Eighteen rose to oppose the bill, including sportsmen, wildlife advocates and FWP. Most sportsmen’s groups objected to the contradictory language that potentially left Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks open to a wide array of lawsuits, said Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation spokesman Mark Lambrecht.

The new subsection 3 required that wildlife populations be managed scientifically and that FWP prioritize hunting, fishing and trapping as management tools. Phillips pointed out that the science isn’t settled in some situations and science doesn’t come into play in others, such as permit drawings. Meanwhile, wildlife advocates argued that science sometimes supported the use of hazing or trapping and relocation instead of hunting or trapping, but subsection 3 wouldn’t allow that.

“Our legal review identified several issues,” Lambrecht said. “Subsection 3 places new limitations on statutory law that could open the door for challenges against existing wildlife management regulations and prevent FWP and the legislature from enacting future regulations for hunting, fishing and trapping.”

FWP attorney Rebecca Dockter said the Constitution’s existing language already protected sportsmen. Plus, the 2015 Legislature passed House Bill 212 that confirms that trapping is protected under the Montana Constitution. So going one step further to modify the Constitution to enshrine trapping protections could cause a slew of problems for biologists, take authority away from the FWP commission and the Legislature, and waste sportsmen’s dollars battling court challenges, Dockter said.

“This is a solution in search of a problem,” Dockter said. “Creation of a fundamental right creates … the right to challenge in court any law, regulation or policy that could affect that right. In truth, it’s an attorney’s dream. The courts would be repeatedly asked to be the ultimate arbiters as to whether management actions are constitutional.”

Sportsmen praised the effort to protect Montana’s hunting heritage but suggested it might be better accomplished through collaborative effort of legislators and sportsmen.

“The guys in Butte last night at our meeting said we have a golden opportunity to bring a bunch of diverse groups in support of trapping together and work out a solution. Rather than a contentious debate here that is pushing people apart, let’s find a way to bring people together,” said Sam Milodragovich of Skyline Sportsmen.

Because many speakers hadn't opposed adding stronger language protecting animal harvest, Sen. Chaz Vincent, R-Libby, asked if Fielder would consider amending the language to get rid of the problematic subsection 3 and modify the main protection statement.

Fielder agreed, but wanted to make it quick, because less than two weeks remain before transmittal day. If her bill doesn’t pass the Senate before then, it’s dead.