As the dust settles after the 67th Montana Legislature’s departure from Helena, we at Montana Audubon are trying to wrap our heads around all the regulatory changes that impact wildlife and their habitats. This year, between January 2nd and April 26th, we testified on 59 of the most important issues that arose, opposing 43 and supporting 16. Unfortunately, many of the bills we opposed crossed the finish line anyway, including some of the most anti-bison legislation that has been vetoed the past three sessions. Disappointingly, both HB 318 and HB 302 were signed by the Governor early in the month; they collectively define nearly all Montana bison as livestock and give County Commissioners the authority over the relocation and transport of wild bison in the state. This makes wildlife conservation overly bureaucratic, puts authority for a public resource in the wrong hands, and goes against the public’s desire to manage our National animal properly.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Montana Legislature made moves to almost completely gut the regulation of openpit mines, like gravel pits, all across the state. In the name of streamlining the permit process, the passage of HB 599 reduces opportunities for public input, changes reclamation requirements, and makes it easier to increase the size and duration of an opencut development. Fortunately, SB 284, another bill that would have made it easier to permit gravel pits in sage grouse country, was amended to still require developers, the county and state government in this case, to still work through the Sage Grouse Stewardship Act and its compensatory mitigation requirements.
While these major changes to existing Montana law were taking place, the legislature also had an obligation to appropriate new funding from the passage of Ballot Initiative 190, that legalized recreational marijuana. As passed by the voters, the initiative dedicates much needed funding to the Habitat Montana program that helps preserve and support habitat for Montana’s most threatened species. Through HB 701, the Montana Legislature made it known that the voters’ voices still matter; many attempts to funnel this funding away from habitat and wildlife were pushed back but in the end the bill manages to support habitat and many of Montana’s other important state programs.
In a move that surprises no one, a slew of anti-predator legislation also passed, even the dreaded “whiskey for trappers” bill that allows private money to reimburse trappers for costs incurred while trapping wolves. This bill came directly from an out-of-state group from Idaho called the Foundation for Wildlife Management, and it essentially creates a private bounty paid for a trapped wolf. Alongside of perhaps the most anti-wolf bills that passed this year, SB 314 that intends to reduce Montana’s wolf population far below ecologically healthy populations, these bills bring a double dose of vulnerability to wolves trying to make a living in our state.
This laundry list is the tip of the ice burg when it comes to regulatory changes made in the 67th. We are asking ourselves where we go from here. We know there are a lot of you out there concerned as well, and so we will not give up the fight. We have been working with partners to reinvigorate grassroots awareness of gravel pit permitting issues, and are working hard at both the state and federal level to make sure sage-grouse conservation stays on track. While our alerts will be less frequent, keep your eyes out as we are still going to need your help, perhaps now more than ever as we work hard to follow the sessions’ rule-making and fall-out sure to follow.