The second half of the legislative session began on March 6th. Up to this point, we’ve testified on dozens of bills affecting wildlife and habitat programs, clean energy, environmental protections, and public lands. In the coming weeks, the fate of many of these bills will become clear, as committee hearings continue to take place and bills make their way to the Governor’s desk. Keep an eye out for future action alerts, including some asking you to call or email the Governor’s office.
Here’s an update on our legislative priorities:
Public Lands: There is much concern about the future of public lands these days. Two resolutions that would have made it the policy of the Montana Legislature to oppose any efforts to sell or transfer public lands failed to reach a floor vote, mostly along party lines. No land transfer bills have surfaced this session in Helena, but GOP leaders continue to assert that our federal lands would be better managed by the states. Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas (R-Stevensville) described Montanans’ concerns over transferring public lands as “silly at best”, and recently opined this editorial on public lands.
Also passing along mostly party lines was HJ 9, a resolution by Rep. Kerry White (R-Bozeman) calling for Montana’s wilderness study areas to be opened to multiple-use management, including motorized recreation. Montana contains 44 federally-managed wilderness study areas, spanning close to a million acres, which provide important habitat for native wildlife and world-class recreation opportunities. Many deserve permanent wilderness protection and we will continue to oppose any attempts to undermine wilderness values in Montana. On a more positive note, House Bill 491 – which would create an annual public lands day – passed the House and we will be supporting this bill as it moves through the Senate.
Sage-grouse and wildlife funding: The most important bill affecting Greater Sage-grouse conservation, House Bill 228, passed out of the House and will have a public hearing in the Senate soon. The bill places $1.6 million in the Sage-grouse stewardship account, generating funds for voluntary conservation of sagebrush habitat, and provides $400,000 to the Department of Natural Resources for program staffing needs. We continue to work to ensure that Habitat Montana emerges intact and fully-funded, with authority for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to conserve vital habitat through land acquisitions and conservation easements.
Wildlife management: We are also tracking a number of bills that would impact wildlife management. Along with Montana Wildlife Federation and the state’s veterinary association, we are leading the opposition against a House Bill 157, which would legalize pet foxes in Montana. There will be a key vote happening soon, and we have included this bill in a number of action alerts. If passed, this bill would allow Montanans to acquire pet foxes from captive facilities in Montana or bring exotic fox species into the state. This would threaten our native fox species, including the Swift Fox, a state species of concern, and genetically-distinct populations of red foxes living in the Yellowstone region.
Speaking of foxes, House Bill 98 was intended to provide greater protections for rare spotted skunks in Montana, but was hijacked and would now classify red foxes along with raccoons, badgers, and striped as “predatory animals”. These animals can be shot on sight and populations are not managed by FWP. This is a recent development, and we will likely be including this bill in a future action alert and requesting a veto if this bill is passed by the legislature.
A resolution calling on Congress to delist the Grizzly Bear across its entire range in Montana passed the House recently and will soon have a public hearing in the Senate. Montana Audubon opposed this resolution (HJ 15), along with our conservation partners, because wildlife management is best left to wildlife biologists, not Congress or our state legislators. We will continue to advocate for responsible, science-based management of all of Montana’s native species.
Renewable Energy: It’s been a tough session for renewable energy advocates in Montana. We supported House Bill 34, sponsored by Rep. Daniel Zolnikov (R-Billings). This bill would have increased the net-metering cap for certain government facilities and provided a clear path to increased solar investment in Montana, but it failed to make it out of committee. Another bill we supported, the Solar Jobs and Energy Freedom Act (HB 504), met a similar fate. Two bills attacking net metering – the policy that allows Montana residents and businesses with small wind, solar, or hydro projects to put their excess electricity back onto the grid and be paid for it – remain alive. Senate Bill 78, sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier (R-Kalispell) would fundamentally change the economics of net-metered systems by lowering the compensation rate for electricity put back on the grid, electricity that NorthWestern Energy ultimately sells to other customers.
On a positive note, support for clean energy is growing in Montana as more people realize the advantages of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and creating local jobs. The Solar Jobs and Energy Freedom Rally at the capitol had a good turnout, with hundreds of Montanans traveling to Helena to advocate for renewable energy. Hopefully this momentum continues: Montana Audubon is committed to helping our partner organizations in their efforts to forge a new energy path for Montana.
Environmental Protections: A bright note for our legislative team was the defeat of Senate Bill 98, a “regulatory takings” bill that would have severely limited land-use planning and zoning in Montana, and could have seriously undermined many environmental protections. It has been proven that responsibly implemented regulations are good for our air and water quality, protect vital habitat, and help our native birds and wildlife thrive. We were glad to see this bill defeated by a wide margin.
Clean Water and Wetlands: Two bills with huge implications on water and wetlands cleared the first chamber and are awaiting their next moves. House Bill 339 by Rep. Carl Glimm (R-Kila) would establish new rules for exempt wells and provide too much leeway for their use in new subdivisions. This bill is bad policy based on bad science and would deplete streamflows, undermine senior water rights, increase sprawl, and spark conflict among water users. Also, Senate Bill 48, a bill to take over the federal program that regulates “dredge and fill” for wetlands and waterways (Section 404 of the Clean Water Act), passed the Senate, albeit with bipartisan opposition. State management of this permit program does not make sense for many reasons, so we are lobbying to maintain federal control. This bill had a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee and is awaiting further action.
There is still a lot of work to be done during March and April. We will continue to work on important policy issues, advocate for habitat and wildlife program funding, and work with our partners to make sure that any bad bills that make it through the legislature are swiftly vetoed by Governor Bullock!
We’d love to see you at one of these upcoming events:
March 17th. Conservation Lobby Day and MCV Annual Celebration in Helena.
March 17th. Town Hall with US Senator Jon Tester from 3:30 – 4:30 at Helena Middle School Auditorium, located at 1025 N. Rodney Street. The focus of this town hall will be on public lands and Montana’s outdoor economy.
March 20th. Watershed Awards and Legislative Reception from 2:00-7:00 PM, hosted by the Montana Watershed Coordination Council at the capitol building in Helena.
Hope to see you there!