Legislators might have jostled a sleeping giant in 2021 by messing with Montana’s hunting and fishing laws. Hunters and anglers may have been too sluggish to react then, but now, they’re demanding accountability at the ballot box.

Over the Labor Day weekend, just in time for the fall campaign season, the Montana Public Trust Coalition, a new bipartisan grassroots group, went live with a website aimed at holding state legislators accountable for their votes related to hunting, fishing and conservation during the 2023 session.

Brad Wilson, Wilsall resident and founder of Friends of the Crazy Mountains, said he was driven to join the coalition after watching the 2021 Legislature pass too many bills aimed at dismantling the conservation legacy that took Montanans decades to create.

“What I’m seeing personally is all the many, many years that we’ve all worked for conservation in Montana just to see it eroding away quickly. It’s kind of mind-boggling to me. It really concerns me that unfortunately politics can get involved in this stuff. So we’ve got to stand up and make a difference somehow,” Wilson said.

Coalition member Andrew Posewitz said the website serves two purposes. Primarily, it will identify which legislative candidates support Montana’s hunting and fishing heritage and who will protect the public trust.

Under the Public Trust Doctrine, the government - in this case the state – is required to sustainably manage and conserve public land, water, wildlife and fish for the benefit of the public and future generations.

The coalition will begin sending letters to legislative candidates this week, asking them to sign a “Public Trust Promise” to protect Montana’s constitutional rights to a clean and healthful environment and to hunt and fish. Once candidates provide their responses, the website will track who signed the promise so sportsmen and women know who to vote for.

The website will also serve as a petition for those who want to put the next Legislature on notice that it better do right by resident hunters and anglers, Posewitz said. It will enable people from many organizations and political leanings to speak with one voice.

“Last time, we were caught flatfooted. For some reason, we didn’t see this coming. We did the best we could, but we had no strategy, we had no anything. There was no one leading on this stuff,” Posewitz said. “We’re really just trying to give a voice to those people who were frustrated by what happened with the last Legislative session. This gives them a place where they can put their name so they can be heard by this year’s candidates.”

Candidates should pay attention because Montana is one of a few states where the population still includes a fair number of hunters and anglers, and many care about conservation and public access.

A 2022 University of Montana poll found 43% of respondents are both hunters and anglers while another 10-15% say they’re one or the other. About 85% consistently say that conservation issues are important when deciding whom to vote for. Last year, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks director Hank Worsech said hunting and fishing license sales were at an all-time high, with more than 45 million licenses sold by April 1.

Those numbers are enabled by Montana’s vast open spaces but also by laws and regulations put in place years ago by people interested in conserving Montana’s fish and wildlife and preserving opportunity for resident sportsmen. Aided by Montana’s 1972 Constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, conservationists of the past were able to conserve streamflows for fish, restore native fisheries, set aside wildlife management areas and restore wildlife populations that had been decimated less than a century before.

Jim Posewitz, Andrew’s father, Tony Schoonen, and several other Montana conservationists not only enabled conservation efforts and improved wildlife management and public access, but also encouraged hunting and fishing ethics, such as fair chase and catch-and-release.

Prior to 2021, any changes to FWP’s regulations and policies went through the FWP commission and a public process. FWP proposes changes to the commission and sportsmen can comment on the changes and possibly sway the outcome.

But the 2021 Legislature passed several bills that usurped the authority of the commission and took wildlife management decisions away from FWP, making them law. Lulled by 16 years of relying on Democratic governors who could veto the worst bills and somewhat stymied by limitations on testimony posed by the pandemic, sportsmen failed to staunch the flood of bills that tried to do everything from removing fair-chase rules from predator hunts to allowing landowners to give out 10 game tags each, a violation of the public trust doctrine.

In November 2010, Montana voters indicated they didn’t support that kind of thing when they passed a citizen’s initiative that outlawed outfitter-sponsored tags While the Republican majority pushed the bills through, apparently not all Republicans were completely onboard.

“I’ve heard this across the board: Democrats weren’t overly surprised about (the assaults on the public trust). Who was genuinely surprised were some Republicans. That’s sort of what drove this coalition. Part of what they were forced to do is choose between the Second Amendment and the public trust,” Posewitz said. “We don’t want candidates to be put in that position, so we’re trying to get these things separated. Isolate the issue of the public trust from all the other political garbage.”

The Public Trust Coalition already has some heavy political hitters signed on, including Republican Marc Racicot and Democrat Steve Bullock, both former governors, and former Secretary of State Bob Brown, also a Republican. Nine former FWP commissioners and nine of 16 Outdoor Hall of Fame members are also in support.

Wilson and Posewitz anticipate that the bipartisan list of supporters will continue to grow now that the website is up. Wilson said this fall’s election is pivotal in stopping the bills that would sell Montana’s wildlife, land and water to the rich, most of whom are recent transplants.

“We can’t beat the rich people at the banks, but we can sure make a difference at the ballot box. This isn’t a magic bullet – if we can get this thing slowed down a little bit or make it go away, that will be a blessing for all of us. I know this isn’t going to completely disappear. But we can put it to rest a little bit here,” Wilson said. “We are all losing the transparency and the public input right now. There’s no more public comment, they’re trying to shut all these doors on us, and man, that is huge. I realize that we vote for people to represent us all, but are they really representing us all?”

Posewitz hopes the coalition can resurrect the enthusiasm of a decade ago, when orange-draped hunters loomed in the seats above the Senate chambers or howled in the rotunda in support of corner-crossing or similar bills. But he’s worried about the single-issue voter who would let hunting issues slip, the newcomers with no knowledge of Montana’s history or those who no longer can be bothered to pay attention.

“If you haven’t lost enough, you don’t pay attention. And some people aren’t aware of how much we’ve already lost,” Posewitz said.

Wilson remembered being disappointed by one hunter who said he wanted to skip a meeting in favor of a ball game.

“I was like, holy smokes, I hope those ball games are that important because what you’re going to lose here is huge,” Wilson said. “I guess I can look in the mirror and say that I did something, and I tried to step in and help. We’ve got a great bunch of people behind us, and that’s going to be a plus.”

 Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.