We’re in the final days of the 2017 legislative session. Rumor has it that upon passing budget and infrastructure bills (no small tasks), the Legislature will be adjourning early this year. Last minute attempts to undermine wildlife management and habitat conservation are keeping us busy right up to Sine Die (the end of session). Montana Audubon will provide a final legislative summary in our May edition of the eNews. For now, here is an update on bills we’ve worked on this month as well as the latest status on our priority bills.
The most important bill affecting Greater Sage-grouse conservation, House Bill 228, continues to move forward, having now passed the House and Senate by wide margins. The bill places $1.6 million in the Sage-grouse stewardship account for voluntary conservation of sagebrush habitat, and provides funds to the Department of Natural Resources for program staffing.
Along with our conservation partners, we successfully stopped House Bill 651, which would have fundamentally changed the focus of the Habitat Montana program, a 30 year conservation success story, from habitat conservation to public access. The House Natural Resources Committee passed the bill despite a room full of hunters, anglers and recreationists opposing it, and not a single proponent showing up to support the bill. However, the bill failed on the House floor thanks to overwhelming public opposition.
Undeterred by this defeat, however, Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas (R-Stevensville) introduced an amendment inserting concepts of HB 651 into to House Bill 434, known as the Montana Habitat Improvement Act. This bill by Rep. Kelly Flynn (R-Townsend) was intended to improve wildlife habitat by creating a $2 million program using federal funds to combat noxious weeds across Montana. The amended version would require some of those funds be used to pay for a new public access position under the State Land Board and puts Montana’s share of federal Pittman-Robertson funds (which currently total around $21 million) at risk. The bill originally passed the House by a 96-1 margin, but its fate is now uncertain.
In a vote that surprised most of us who had been working to defeat this bill, Senate Bill 236 died on the House Floor last week on a 48-51 vote. This is the bill which sought a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to hunt, fish, and trap. Because the bill needed support from two-thirds of legislators in order to pass, it failed by a large margin. We were happy to see this bill fail, as there were serious concerns with the language it contained and it’s impacts on wildlife management, as well as private property rights and hunting and fishing costs. That’s why even hunting and fishing organizations lined up in opposition to this one.
Another big victory for the session came in the defeat of House Bill 157, which would have legalized the keeping of pet foxes in Montana. We believe this was a victory for our native foxes and other wildlife across the state, including the Swift Fox, a state species of concern. Another victory was the eventual defeat of House Bill 98. While this bill was originally intended to provide greater protections for rare spotted skunks in Montana, it was amended to reclassify red foxes along with racoons, badgers, and striped skunks as “predatory animals”, which guaranteed a “shoot on sight” policy toward these species.
A resolution calling on Congress to de-list the Grizzly Bear from the Endangered Species Act across its entire range in Montana, passed the House and Senate. We opposed this resolution (HJR 15), along with our conservation partners, believing it is not the job of a Legislature to de-list a threatened species. We will continue to advocate for responsible, science-based management of all of Montana’s native species.
Senate Bill 111, a bill that would prohibit the supplemental feeding of wild turkeys, appears to be moving closer to becoming law despite an initial setback. We supported the original version of the bill to create a statewide ban on feeding wild turkeys, which has been shown to spread disease and increase human-wildlife conflicts, especially when it attracts hungry bears. We supported this bill along with the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
One of the biggest environmental issues of the session is how the state will respond to the threats posed by aquatic invasive species. In 2016, tests confirmed the presence of aquatic Zebra Mussel larvae in Montana’s waters for the first time. These tiny invasive species have huge implications for fish, water bodies, and infrastructure like irrigation systems and hydroelectric dams. It appears that the state’s response is encompassed in a pair of bills that emerged late in the session – Senate Bill 363 and House Bill 622. SB 363 is the funding bill for the state’s enhanced Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) prevention and response efforts and it has undergone a number of changes since being introduced. In its latest version, it will generate approximately $14 million each biennium for AIS efforts through a new energy fee on hydroelectric facilities operating in the state and an AIS fee for utilities. It also would require the purchase of an AIS prevention pass in order to obtain a Montana fishing license at a cost of $2 for residents and $15 for nonresidents. The version passed by the Senate included a $25 fee for out-of-state bicycles, which some legislators said was a joke, but cyclists failed to see the humor. HB 622 creates the policy framework for the state’s AIS program, which includes creating an Invasive Species Council to advise the governor on strategies to prevent and mitigate aquatic invasive species in Montana.
Senator Duane Ankney (R-Colstrip) introduced Senate Joint Resolution 6 early in the session and the bill appears to be close to passing. It awaits a final vote on the House Floor where it is likely to pass. The resolution would give Montana’s support to a Regulation Freedom Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would require that anytime one quarter of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate are opposed to a federal regulation, a majority vote by both the House and Senate is necessary to adopt the regulation. This is part of a nationwide push by far-right, out-of-state interest groups to limit the rule-making authority of agencies like the EPA and Department of Interior. Passage of this bill would certainly be a low point for Montana’s 65th Legislature, and because it is a resolution it does not require the Governor’s signature.
In a victory of sorts, Senate Bill 190 made it to the Senate Floor where for the first time in many years a climate change bill was debated. The bill by Senators Mike Phillips (D-Bozeman) and Dick Barrett (R-Missoula) would have created a Montana-made plan to deal with greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. The bill ultimately failed on a party line vote, but we commend the Senators for bringing the bill forward and fighting to make climate change as issue in the Montana Senate.
We supported Senate Bill 247, also by Sen. Mike Phillips (D-Bozeman), that required a state report on pollinator health, but the bill failed in the Senate on a 25-25 vote. Originally, the bill would have banned the outdoor use of neonicotinoid insecticides. It was amended to require a report by the Department of Agriculture that included an assessment of the impacts of neonicotinoids on pollinators, development of a proposal to create and enhance pollinator nesting and foraging habitat, including the establishment of pollinator reserves or refuges, and recommendations for best management practices and habitat restoration guidelines for pollinator habitat. We think this would have been a great bill for our native pollinators and we hope to see a similar bill brought forward in 2019.
It’s been a tough session for renewable energy advocates in Montana, but thankfully Governor Bullock has already used his veto pen to keep some of the worst energy bills from becoming law. Senate Bill 32 would have repealed the Community Renewable Energy Projects (CREPs) provision of the Renewable Energy Standard. Its passage would have meant losing jobs, tax revenue and clean energy created by these community-owned projects.
There have been numerous attacks on “net metering” this session, a 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. Senate Bill 78, sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier (R-Kalispell ), would lower the compensation rate for electricity put back on the grid, electricity that NorthWestern turns around and sells to other customers. This bill has stalled in the House Energy Committee, but if passed would likely be vetoed as well.
We’ve put a lot of time into defeating a pair of bills both aimed at providing the State Parks and Recreation Board with greater autonomy from the Director of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP). Last week a new FWP Director, Martha Williams, was confirmed by the Senate and we are confident she will be able to improve the management of our state parks without drastic changes to the structure of the agency. Despite opposition, House Bill 324, which would remove the State Parks and Recreation Board from under the FWP Director, has made its way to the Governor’s desk. Such a move would cost the Board an estimated $1.7 million per year in order to cover over their rent and IT expenses, funds that could go toward improving our parks! It’s unclear whether there are enough votes to sustain a veto on this one, although several conservation groups are pushing for one.
House Bill 491, a bill to designate March 1st of each year as Montana Public Lands Day, passed the House but failed to make it out of committee in the Senate. As the bill progressed through the legislative process, it became the target of anti-federal lands legislators. Perhaps it will fare better in the future.
House Joint Resolution 9, a resolution by Rep. Kerry White (R-Bozeman) that calls for Montana’s Wilderness Study Areas managed by the US Forest Service to be released from WSA-status passed the House and Senate. However, the Senate version The bill includes language acknowledging that formal wilderness designation should be an option where appropriate. It remains to be seen whether this addition will be approved by the House. Montana Audubon recognizes the important habitat and cultural values of wilderness areas and continue to advocate for wilderness protections where it makes sense.
One of the worst bills of the session, House Bill 339 by Rep. Carl Glimm (R-Kila), cleared the Senate last week on a party line vote. This bill would open the “exempt well” loophole closed by the Montana Supreme Court last year. By allowing for the use of wells exempt from obtaining water rights, passage of this bill would lead to depleted streamflows, increased conflict among water users, and more residential sprawl. We plan to advocate strongly for a veto of this bill by Governor Bullock. Watch for a future action alert about this bill, or contact Governor Bullock to support a veto of House Bill 339. The Governor can be reached at (406) 444-3111.
Another bill we worked hard to stop this session was Senate Bill 48, a bill for state assumption of the federal program that regulates “dredge and fill” for wetlands and waterways (Section 404 of the Clean Water Act). The bill passed the Senate, albeit with bipartisan opposition, but failed to make it out of the House Natural Resources Committee. Our initial concerns with this bill were the impacts to wetlands and environmental quality, although financial and logistical concerns emerged as the primary reasons for opposition, including a multi-million dollar annual price tag.
With just a few days to go, we are committed to finishing strong in our support for native wildlife and a healthy environment in Montana. We have already signed on to several veto letters sent to Governor Bullock, and are hoping he will continue to be a reliable backstop to the bad bills that emerged from the Legislature this session. Once again, thanks for your support, and we look forward to providing one final legislative update in the May edition of our eNews.
Amy & Dan
Go, Fly, Win!