Montana legislator brings anti-public lands campaign to D.C. hearing on wildlife corridors

The Western Governors’ Association in June unanimously passed a resolution that mirrors the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act in encouraging agencies to work together to preserve migration corridors. (USFWS)

A public lands opponent from Montana continued to call for the transfer of federal lands during a congressional hearing on wildlife corridors.

The House Natural Resources Committee recently heard testimony on two bills that would provide funding to establish a national wildlife corridor system and help state wildlife agencies preserve species that may be headed toward extinction.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, H.R. 3742, would provide funding to states and tribes to conserve more than 12,000 species of plants and animals so they never need to be considered for endangered species protection. The Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act, H.R. 2795, would encourage federal, state and local governments to work together to protect important migration pathways.

“The Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act will help ensure wildlife can move through an increasingly fragmented landscape to get to the food, water, breeding grounds and seasonal habitat they need to survive,” said National Wildlife Federation CEO Collin O’Mara during Thursday’s testimony.

Over the past five years, support has grown for preserving wildlife corridors as improved GPS technology allowed biologists to track wildlife and learn that animals travel far greater distances than people once thought. For example, biologists learned that mule deer annually travel more than 150 miles between summer and winter grounds.

But scientists have also documented how increasingly treacherous those journeys are, as wildlife have to dodge human habitation and cross congested roadways.

As more people become aware, calls have grown louder for wildlife corridor conservation and more wildlife crossings to save both human and animal lives. In answer, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued a 2018 secretarial order to improve habitat quality and migration corridors throughout the West.

The Western Governors’ Association in June unanimously passed a resolution that mirrors the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act in encouraging agencies to work together to preserve migration corridors.

During testimony on Capitol Hill last week, Stephen Guertin, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service policy deputy director, said the service supports collaborative work with state agencies, but acknowledged that state agencies don’t have much money to work with. Federal money is needed so wildlife agencies have the resources required to identify and map wildlife corridors.

“The Service, the (Bureau of Land Management) and U.S. Geological Survey continue the focused implementation of the Order to help the states identify priority corridors, and to focus limited habitat conservation dollars on the most important areas within a respective state,” Guertin said.

Many see the value of setting aside wildlife corridors, especially on public land, but a few argued against not only corridors but federal land overall.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said wildlife didn’t need special corridors because “pipelines and other infrastructure are perfectly compatible with wildlife.”

“The tree clearing and sunlight has stimulated the undergrowth that has created habitat for rabbits and songbirds,” McClintock said.

However, research on most species has demonstrated that wildlife avoid areas cleared for transmission lines and pipelines and the wide swaths of bare land add to habitat fragmentation.

McClintock told Democrats to stop wasting time on saving wildlife and focus instead on stopping wildfires and saving habitat that way.

However, a number of Montana-based wildfire scientists would argue that fires in the right places create habitat and that management can’t stop extreme wildfires such as those that pop up in the hot, dry, windy conditions of California.

“Fire is as important to this system as rain and soil. But we’ve taken this natural process out of the forest,” said Bozeman-based research ecologist Travis Belote. “We’re working in this context where policy makers want to manage in advance of fire, and ecologists say, ‘No, this is perfectly natural.’ We shouldn’t treat the forest all the same way.”

Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls

And yet, following McClintock’s lead, state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, appeared before the subcommittee representing the American Land Council, a Utah-based political organization focused on securing federal land transfers. Fielder took over as the Americans Land Council CEO after Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory stepped down amid accusations of misusing taxpayer money.

Fielder argued at last week’s hearing that federal land agencies were incompetent, wildfires were the proof, and more federal management wasn’t needed.

“This so-called Wildlife Corridors Act may be the most devastating legislation ever,” Fielder said.

Using some extreme claims, Fielder said the act would tie up federal land and waters “like we have never seen before,” and would add to dirty air, polluted water, decimated wildlife, blocked-off access, and economically devastated, depressed and unsafe communities.

To illustrate economic devastation, she showed a photo of the Milltown Market. She didn’t mention the building is in a community that is rebounding, thanks to new business at the Bonner mill site and the Kettlehouse development.

Some people questioned why Fielder was asked to testify.

The Whitefish-based Western Values Project said Fielder was stumping for the American Lands Council but gave the appearance of representing Montana in her capacity as a state legislator.

Jayson O’Neill, Western Values Project deputy director, said she didn’t represent most Montanans.

Year after year, polls show a bipartisan majority of Montanans support public lands.

“American Lands Council has a long history of anti-public lands advocacy and rhetoric, and hauling their CEO to Capitol Hill is another proof point that this administration and its allies are working to further the agenda of its special interest friends,” O’Neill said in a statement.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.