Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Many of Missoula’s Democratic candidates for the Legislature support having biologists, not politicians, make state wildlife decisions and improving hunter-landowner relations, based upon responses provided during a public conservation forum.

The responses of Republican candidates are unknown because they didn’t show up.

On Wednesday evening, the Montana Citizens Elk Coalition hosted a candidate forum at the Doubletree Hotel with the intent of allowing hunters and outdoor enthusiasts to learn more about their candidates' positions on hunting and wildlife-related issues prior to Montana’s general election on Nov. 8.

"We expect wildlife policy and elk management to once again figure prominently in the upcoming 2023 legislative session," said George Bettas of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association. "These forums will help us all learn more about our candidates' various positions on the fish and wildlife challenges that are critically important to Montana hunters, anglers, and outdoor users.”

Event moderator Cole Anderson told the dozen in attendance that Montana used to have conservation candidate forums for every election cycle but not for the past decade or so. The Montana Wildlife Federation and other groups were trying to revive the tradition. Other forums were held in Bozeman and Great Falls.

They sent notifications and invitations out by email, text and phone calls to all the candidates in the 15 legislative races around the Missoula area. They included the nine predetermined questions the coalition would ask that focused on wildlife management, nonresident hunting and public land and water issues.

But in the end, the forum was somewhat one-sided with only six Democratic candidates attending. In attendance were Bob Carter, HD98; Willis Curdy, SD 49; Tom France, HD94; Marilyn Marler, HD90; Katie Sullivan, HD 89; and Mark Thane, HD99.

Three other Democrats and one Independent couldn’t attend but submitted written responses. Organizer Jeffrey Lukas said he received initial responses from about half of the Republican candidates but then they didn’t respond again.

From left to right Ton France, Willis Curdy and Bob Carter. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
From left to right Ton France, Willis Curdy and Bob Carter. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
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The Democratic candidates all supported efforts to ensure that the public can continue to comment on conservation bills. Last session, the Republican majority held some closed conference committees that made last-minute changes that hunters didn’t support, including giving priority to nonresident hunters who use outfitting services. Sullivan said she’s working to limit the ability to hold closed committees.

The candidates also encouraged a return to in-person hunter-education classes - the current administration uses mass-produced online courses and optional field days - and increasing the number of wardens and other Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks employees who help landowners with hunters, especially landowners enrolled in Block Management, a FWP program that allows access to private lands.

“The ethics are very important. Unfortunately, adult hunters sometimes resist being told what to do and what policies to follow. But with those hunting privileges, hunters have a responsibility that a small percentage don’t follow. Having that enhanced education would be a wonderful link between hunters and landowners to improve hunter access,” Carter said. “Maybe more landowners would enroll in block management if they knew the hunters coming on there would have a higher standard of ethics.”

Trying to get more employees for FWP would require a bit of budget wrangling. Some Republicans have tried to reduce FWP’s budget, either by limiting Habitat Montana money or shunting money into other programs, like paying the state prison $1 million a year in exchange for some pen-raised pheasants.

Curdy agreed FWP needs more wardens but added a caution based upon his years of legislative experience. For example, the 2017 Legislature changed the funding purpose for wardens.

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“So instead of being out working with landowners and (investigating) illegal killing and the like, we put our game wardens to work building fences. A terrible waste of what our game wardens are supposed to be doing,” Curdy said. “So, I need to emphasize that if we need to increase the number of wardens, we make sure they deal with game issues and landowner relations and not be tied up doing something that the Legislature forced them to do that has nothing to do with their job.”

As to using sportsmen’s dollars to support the prison, France said he was going to sponsor a bill to reverse that, because it doesn’t help the wild pheasant population and doesn’t do much to recruit new hunters.

Access is always a big issue, whether it’s hunter access or stream access.

All the candidates talked about the need to add more acreage into the Block Management program. But they also stressed the need to preserve landowners’ ability to put their property under conservation easements. Currently, the Republican Land Board is increasingly resisting any proposals to use Habitat Montana money to buy land or conservation easements, which is making it difficult for some landowners.
Marler has helped put some local conservation easements together and knows all the time and effort required.

“FWP leadership, at the direction of the governor, is currently shifting away from perpetual easements toward something called ‘habitat leases,’ which last only 30 or 40 years. It’s short-sighted and it’s not effective. It’s a way of killing off what we’ve had for so long, which is an amazing program in Habitat Montana,” Marler said. “Also in the last legislative session was a bill that said the Land Board had to vote on Habitat Montana expenditures more than $1 million. These folks are elected, and they can be voted out of office. But if you’re a family and you’re going to embark on a five-year planning process for your estate, the fact that those elected people are going to shift every couple of years is going to be a huge roadblock to even getting involved.”

New landowners sometimes try to block public roads to prevent the public access near or through their property even though it’s illegal. All the candidates agreed that the fine of $10 a day for blocking public roads needs to be increased. On the flip side, they also approved of increasing the fine or other punishment for trespassing on private property.
“If you don’t put money in the parking meter downtown, the fine is greater than $10. Ten dollars is not a deterrent,” Thane said.

Montana has some of the best stream access laws in the nation but again, landowners have tried to block that access and some would like to change the laws. All the candidates said they’d defend the laws that were hard-fought successes decades ago. Curdy warned that Montanans should stay alert because bills have occasionally come up that would reduce that access.

“I’m really concerned that if a majority of the wrong people get in place in the Legislature, there will be a run at our stream access law. We need to be diligent about who is running and where they stand,” Curdy said. “In 2013, I went over to testify, and there was a bill to stop our stream access law. There was an overwhelming show of opposition from stream access advocates. But we shouldn’t have to get there.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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