1

Proposed Constitutional amendment wants to make trapping a right

Fish and Wildlife Services

Trappers are backing a bill to ask voters to approve a Constitutional amendment to make trapping a right. But the bill also extends that right to hunting and fishing to increase the likelihood it would pass.

This week, Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, told the Senate Fish and Game committee that the reason he wanted House Bill 367 to pass is to prevent wildlife advocacy groups from backing any more state ballot initiatives to ban trapping on public lands.

Groups such as Footloose Montana and Trap Free Montana Public Lands have tried four times to put initiatives on the Montana ballot between 2010 and 2016. The first three attempts didn’t make it onto the ballot and the last onefailed to pass, but Fiedler said trappers paid a half-million dollars to oppose the initiatives.

“I’d like to have all those hours back that I spent fighting those initiatives,” Fielder said. “So what we’re trying to do is head this off once and for all in Montana.”

HB367 would ask voters on the November 2022 ballot to change the state Constitution to recognize the rights of citizens to hunt, fish and trap wild fish and wildlife.

In 2004, voters approved a Constitutional amendment that preserves the “opportunity of Montana citizens to harvest wild fish and wild game animals.” Former state Rep. Joe Balyeat sponsored the amendment, saying it struck a balance between recognizing the importance of hunting and fishing while not creating an absolute right that would create enforcement problems for Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

But Fielder said he wants to make it a right, not just an opportunity.

Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, said making it a right could raise legal problems if a trapper broke a law and FWP imposed a penalty that included taking his license away. It could also make it harder for FWP biologists to limit hunting and trapping quotas if wildlife populations are dwindling.

“When someone does something illegal and you want to take away a Constitutional right, it could allow someone argue that they should be able to harvest, even though they’ve done something illegal,” Cohenour said.

Fielder pointed out that people who commit felony crimes lose their rights to carry a gun. He added that he copied the language of the bill from other states that passed similar amendments, citing Iowa and Missouri.

For the past two years, Missouri has tried to pass a bill that would put a similar amendment to its voters but the bill, backed by the National Rifle Association, doesn’t mention trapping specifically.

However, the bills being considered in Iowa is similar to Fielder’s bill. Like Fielder’s bill, the Iowa bills would make hunting, fishing, trapping and harvesting of wildlife the primary means of controlling wildlife.

Several opponents of Fielder’s bill argued against that language because it ignores the use of nonlethal control methods such as range riders, noisemakers and flagging on fences called flagery. They said Montana is home to far more species than Iowa for good reason.

“This bill is unnecessary, misguided, ties the hands of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and elevates politics over science in regard to sound wildlife management policy,” said Bonnie Rice, Sierra Club senior campaign manager. “We strongly object to the language that mandating hunting, fishing and trapping as the preferred method of wildlife management is ‘for the benefit of all Montanans.’ Many Montanans prioritize coexistence and nonlethal methods of wildlife management rather than the killing of wildlife.”

Politics is overwhelming science as evidenced by both sides claiming that out-of-state groups were spending money to push Montana one way or the other.  East Helena trapper Garrett Bacon said outside interests were trying to eliminate trapping so the bill could stop that.

On the other hand, there is a national GOP push for these kinds of amendments in the states. In addition to the NRA, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and the Advisory Council of the Montana Sportsmen’s Caucus are pushing the bills.

Fielder’s bill has 46 Republican cosponsors, and it passed the House with a party-line vote on March 29.

Among the 11 proponents of the bill, only one hunting group – the right-leaning Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife – testified in favor. The rest were representatives or members of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, the Montana Trapping Association, the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the United Property Owners of Montana.

Montana’s other hunting organizations didn’t testify on either side.

However, Stan Frasier, a former president of three Montana hunting organizations, joined 17 others in opposing the bill. People who are repelled by the cruelty of trapping tend to be less opposed to hunting because hunting is fair chase, Frasier said.

“There’s no fair chase in trapping. It’s a commercial activity. It’s market hunting,” Frasier said. “And trappers do not provide a service to the public. Trapping generally is done for money.”

Some testified they support the rights of hunters and fishermen, but not trapping. Others pointed out that the number of people who enjoy watching wildlife – nonconsumptive users – outnumber the approximate 6,000 trappers in the state, but they would receive no consideration under such an amendment.

The committee took no action on the bill.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.