With fall about a month away, a Legislative environmental committee wants final public input on two proposed wildlife bills and four wildlife and wildland reports before submitting final recommendations to the 2021 Legislature.
Last week, the Legislative Environmental Quality Council gave initial approval to bills to make trapper education mandatory and limit the precision of wildlife location data that’s publicly accessible. The committee passed on taking any action related to its reports on wilderness study areas or chronic wasting disease, a deadly deer and elk disease.
The proposed trapper education bill would require Montanans born after 1985 to take a trapping course prior to applying for a trapping license, unless the person is trapping only for protection of livestock or property or has already attended a Montana Trapper Association youth trapper camp. The bill also says that FWP will incorporate the Montana Trapper Association manual in the course material, and anyone who wanted to hunt – not trap – bobcat, lynx or wolverine wouldn’t need trapper training.
Montana hunters are already required to take a hunter education course if they were born after 1985, but there’s not been a matching requirement for trappers. The course that FWP created in 2017 is optional.
In 2017, the FWP commission voted to make trapper education mandatory but then backed off in early 2018 after questions arose about whether the commission had the authority to do so.
In 2017, the Montana Trapper Association had a lot of say in the development of the course, which gained support from trappers but drew opposition from some who didn’t like the organization having so much say in an FWP program. So it’s likely this proposed bill would see similar opposition.
The second bill tries to find a compromise between Montanans’ constitutional right to know and the precise locations of wildlife that FWP biologists now have, thanks to the improved technology of radio collars.
Using satellites, GPS technology and computer plotting, biologists can know exactly where collared animals are in real time. That’s helpful if biologists are learning about wildlife migration routes or denning locations, but it could be deadly for game animals if the public uses that information to track them.
A 2019 law was already passed, making it illegal for people to use agency location data to track and kill fish or wildlife, but nothing stops them from being able to get that data in the first place. It’s tricky, because Montana has important right-to-know laws that allow the public to ask what its government and agencies are doing. So the Legislature can’t tell FWP to refuse to give the data out. But there is a little grey area, because if people aren’t supposed to use the data, there’s no need to know exact locations.
After studying the threats to wildlife and the legal limitations, the committee is proposing to amend the law making it illegal to use the data and allow FWP to provide data that gives locations but is much less precise. For example, FWP could say an animal was within a particular square-mile section during the week of October 15.
Two joint study resolutions from the 2019 Legislature have been published as reports without any associated bills.
The report on Montana’s wilderness study areas was the follow-up to a Republican push at the state and national level to release the study areas. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte introduced Congressional bills after the Republican-led 2017 Legislature passed a resolution calling on Congress to release seven wilderness study areas in Montana, which total about 663,000 acres.
Congress was supposed to either designate the study areas as wilderness or remove them from consideration and return them as part of the national forests. But Congress has mostly failed to act for 40 years, although Pres. Ronald Reagan pocket-vetoed one bill. In the meantime, the U.S. Forest Service has failed to keep the wild character of some of the areas, allowing uses like motorized recreation.
The Environmental Quality Council report noted these uses and highlighted some areas where collaborative efforts have tried to reach local consensus, such as the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo area south of Bozeman. But even collaboratives struggle to find solutions.
The report emphasizes there’s nothing the state can do in the way of direct action, so spending time and effort on resolutions and studies is somewhat ineffective. Ultimately, it’s up to the Congress to designate or not. So the council invited Montana’s Congressional delegation to comment at its July 24 meeting. All three sent written comments that remained fairly vague.
In a change from his 2018 bill eliminating the wilderness study areas, Daines said any solution “should include local support and will likely focus on issues of access and recreation to these lands.”
After he introduced his 2018 bill, Gianforte said he learned a lot from public meetings, although some Montanans complained he rarely had meetings that were open to all, and Gianforte didn’t elaborate more than to say, “We should recognize that each community is unique, and the residents and their leaders know what is best for them.”
Sen. Jon Tester said he also depends on community leaders to help find solutions that he can bring to Congress, such as the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act. But even with local support and Congressional sponsors, getting a bill through Congress can take years. Still, you can’t force something through, Tester told the council.
“Politicians in Helena forcing a top-down decision on Montana communities is not all that different than politicians in Washington, D.C., telling folks in local areas how to manage their lands without local input,” Tester wrote.
The fourth report highlighted the spread of chronic wasting disease through the state’s deer population after finally showing up in October 2017 in southeast Montana. The disease is a molecule that ungulates get through direct contact with another infected animal or its remains and it attacks the brain slowly over the course of a year or two before the animals dies.
The disease has surfaced in northern Montana and most recently in Libby, probably because a hunter or hunters brought carcasses back from another part of the state. The council looked into whether or not to restrict the transport of carcasses from other states and whether to ramp up in-state testing of carcasses. But no conclusion was reached.
To comment on all these reports or bills except the one dealing with trapping, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For the trapping bill, email email@example.com. Comments must be submitted by 5 p.m. on Aug. 28.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.