Montana still stands out in the nation as a state where residents consistently support conservation. But residents are increasingly worried that rapid growth is degrading all that is wild, according to a new University of Montana poll.
On Tuesday, the UM Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative released its fifth biennial poll of Montanans’ opinions of public lands, wildlife and the policies and actions that conserve them. But this year’s iteration is the first that polled people on questions of growth and development, said Initiative Director Rick Graetz.
“It’s a big issue these days, maybe the biggest in Montana,” Graetz said. “The state just recently announced that our economy grew at the fastest pace in more than 20 years. While that might sound great to celebrate, that’s not exactly what makes people happy. The survey clearly shows voters are experiencing growing pains. Montana wants to grow, but we want to keep our state livable, affordable – very important – and make good on the conservation efforts that protect wildlands and open spaces.”
Most of the responses to conservation issues haven’t changed much since the poll was first conducted in April 2014. A vast majority of Montana’s regularly visit and recreate on public lands, and four out of five polled said wildlife are an important part of their daily life.
“Strikingly, the numbers (of people who visit public lands) that we’re getting today are as high or higher than the numbers we saw in 2020 and 2018,” said FM3 Research pollster Dave Metz. “So the pandemic has not materially affected the frequency with which Montanans are visiting national public lands. And this is about the highest number we see in doing surveys like this around the country.”
Montanans may still be recreating on public lands, but some of the enjoyment has been lost as they’ve experienced more crowding and poor behavior over the past two years as people have flooded in from out of state. When asked about changes in quality of life over the past five years, 55% said it’s declined and only 7% said it’s gotten better.
Almost 60% said the rate of growth and development in the state is too fast. But unlike other poll responses that didn’t seem to vary across the state, people living in the larger towns in western Montana where growth is surging – Missoula, Butte, Bozeman – were far more likely to say growth is a problem, while only about a third of people in rural areas and even Great Falls considered growth to be too fast.
Looking into specific problems contributing to that pessimism, pollsters found 92% of respondents said lack of affordable housing was a serious problem, followed by 85% citing the loss of open land to development and sprawl. About 75% said the changing character of the state, loss of wildlife habitat and crowding were also serious concerns.
“There’s a lot of concern here about the direction that the state’s quality of life is headed,” Metz said.
Elected leaders can do things to encourage conservation, although few do. Particularly during the 2021 Legislature, several conservation efforts were rolled back. That’s surprising, considering that each poll has shown about 45% of Montanans say conservation is a primary consideration in deciding who they’ll vote for. That includes 61% of Democrats, 42% of independents and 35% of Republicans. Another 40% say conservation is somewhat important.
Wild Montana Executive Director Ben Gabriel urged elected leaders to listen more to Montana voters.
“While some try to exploit public lands as a wedge to drive us apart, the reality is that Montanans overwhelmingly want to see our treasured places protected for the benefit of wildlife, our families, and our communities. The survey results reinforce our elected officials’ responsibility to act decisively to protect Montana’s incredible wild public lands, and I urge them to fulfill that responsibility without delay,” Gabriel said in a release.
When the pollsters asked about specific conservation efforts, voters expressed even greater support across the board.
Wildlife migration corridors are quite popular. Almost 100% of respondents said allowing big game to move between summer and winter ranges was important. Almost 90% support the construction of highway crossing structures and incentives for private landowners who conserve lands identified as migration corridors. About 80% supported conserving public land migration corridors.
Based on the response, Montana Wildlife Federation executive director Frank Szollosi encouraged state politicians to take conservation more seriously.
“This survey confirms that Montanans are more concerned than ever about protecting our public lands, especially in the face of the high rate of growth and development in our state. We hope all of our elected leaders recognize that 96% of Montanans see protecting big game habitat as an important priority and support policies that will help protect this prime habitat,” Szollosi said in a release.
When Montanans voted in 2020 to legalize recreational marijuana, the accompanying ballot initiative said half of the resulting tax money would go to state conservation and recreation programs. However, during the 2021 Legislature, both Gov. Greg Gianforte and GOP legislators tried to reduce that amount. By the end of the session, conservation ended up getting one-third of the tax revenue, and April’s poll results show that 82% of Montana’s want that to continue unchanged. That includes 80% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats.
Almost three-quarters of Montanans support two projects proposed in the Blackfoot River basin: the Lincoln Prosperity Proposal and the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project.
The Lincoln Prosperity Proposal includes forest management projects and would increase recreational opportunities on national forest lands while adding 55,000 acres of wilderness near the town of Lincoln.
The Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act, sponsored since 2017 by Sen. Jon Tester, is another collaborative effort that would create 78,000 acres of wilderness. The portions of the Southwest Crown of the Continent Collaborative agreement enabling recreation and forest jobs have already moved forward, not needing Congressional approval.
But Tester’s bill has been stymied, partly due to Sen. Steve Daines. In October, Daines said he would only back the Stewardship Act if Daines’ bill succeeded in eliminating wilderness study areas.
Between 2016 and 2020, about 75% of Montanans supported the Stewardship Act, with 36% in strong support. New Bridge Strategy pollster Lori Wiegel said they cleaned up the question’s language slightly for this year’s poll and support jumped to 83% with 48% in strong support.
“Opposition has been in the mid-teens every time we’ve asked this. But we saw a more robust and intense support level this year than we’ve seen in the past,” Wiegel said. “That came across party lines. We saw a bump up among Republicans, among independents and higher even among Democrats.”
Of note is that four out of five Montanan’s support conserving wilderness study areas for recreation and wildlife habitat rather than giving more access motorized vehicles and extractive industries while Congress decides what to do.
During the Trump administration, the Bureau of Land Management tried to rewrite its management plans for Montana in 2020, giving priority to extractive industries and changing management of wilderness study areas. In October 2020, the lands were saved when a Great Falls judge ruled the plans were invalid.
Montana Conservation Voters Executive Director Whitney Tawney highlighted the support for conserving wilderness study areas.
“This poll shows that even as political polarization increases, protecting our public lands is a core issue that rises above partisanship. In other words, voters across the political spectrum want our leaders to prioritize our public lands and find ways to use the tools available to effectively conserve our natural resources,” Tawney said in a release.
New Bridge Strategy, a Republican pollster, and FM3 Research, a Democratic pollster, conducted the bipartisan survey of 500 Montanans between April 4 and April 10. The margin of error is 4.38%.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.