Effort to divert wildlife habitat money fails

An effort to shunt wildlife habitat funds toward a redundant state-land position died Monday, leaving sportsmen relieved but still a bit frustrated.

In an 8-7 vote, the House Natural Resources Committee failed to pass House Bill 651 and then unanimously tabled it. HB 651 would have created a public-land-access advocate who would report to the state Land Board and who was allotted $100,000 a year out of the Habitat Montana program. The Habitat Montana account was created in 1987 to purchase conservation easements and fee title land that provided good wildlife habitat and thus hunting opportunity.

The money for Habitat Montana comes from sportsmen’s license fees and has amounted to about $2.5 million a year, which has paid for many valuable properties, examples being portions of the Ninepipe, Yellowstone and Marias wildlife management areas.

But legislators repeatedly try to siphon some Habitat Montana money into other endeavors, such as upping Block Management payments. That’s what HB651 was trying to do.

Monday’s close vote may have reflected pressure exerted by15 representatives of sportsmen and wildlife advocates who spoke in opposition to the bill Friday afternoon. No one rose in support, and yet committee Chairman Kerry White, R-Bozeman, tried to limit opponent testimony to 15 minutes.

Committee member Zach Brown, D-Bozeman, asked that opponents be allowed more time, considering that the hearing was occurring only a day after HB651 had been introduced in the House, a rush job that didn’t quite meet the requirements of a House Rule. House Rule 30-40 encourages committees to give at least three days notice of the agenda.

Even without much time to prepare, sportsmen knew the problems that would arise if HB 651 moved forward. First and foremost, the FWP commission now oversees Habitat Montana land or easement purchases, but HB651 would eliminate commission input. That would not only take wildlife managers out of the loop, but it would also result in the loss of matching federal money – Pittman-Robertson funds from the sale of ammunition – and other donations that require wildlife agency oversight of land purchases.

“We don’t want to lose our Pittman-Robertson funding because that leverages our license dollars to do the most we can. These are our sportsmen’s dollars,” said Montana Bowhunters spokesman Jerry Davis.

Plus, a public land advocate already exists as part of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, although the position is less than a year old. So creating another position was duplication and a waste of taxpayer money, said retired Fish, Wildlife & Parks warden and superintendent Michael Korn.

 “Establishing another level of bureaucracy is not a good idea,” Korn said.

Sponsor Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, said he thought the advocate position was necessary because during the interim, he learned that 1.5 million acres of state-trust land was inaccessible to the public. And since the state Land Board oversees the management of state-trust land, the advocate should report to the Land Board.

“The public wants not just access but increased access,” Regier said. “The cost of this position pales compared to the hundreds of acres we stand to gain.”

However, getting landowners to provide public access is not an easy process, and adding another specialist under the Land Board to the one who already works for DNRC could make the process confusing and certainly wouldn’t make it any quicker, said Rep. Virginia Court, D-Helena, on Monday.

“It can’t happen overnight – it is a slow process. And I think the DNRC has the best interest of hunters, anglers and hikers at heart. I don’t think adding another FTE and spending another $200,000 will speed up the process at all,” Court said. “The appointment (of the specialist) was made just last summer, so we haven’t had an opportunity to see what it will be like.”

On Monday, an attempt was made to amend the bill to keep the FWP commission in charge, but the amendment failed by a vote of 5-10.

So for now, the Habitat Montana program remains mostly unchanged. But hunters are demanding that limits placed on the program two years ago be removed. That’s when legislators passed a bill limiting habitat purchases to conservation easements only.

“The Legislature has disregarded the sporting community long enough by freezing our funds and not allowing Habitat Montana to do what it was intended for. Unlike most tax dollars, Montana’s sportsmen and women can truly say this is our money,” said Backcountry Hunters and Anglers spokesman Jeff Lukas.