Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) A University of Montana poll indicates that the high growth the state has experienced over the past five years has made Montanans even more supportive of conservation efforts.

This week, the University of Montana Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative released the results of its fifth biennial voter survey on public lands. Every other year since 2014, pollsters from New Bridge and FM3 have questioned 500 Montana voters about public land and natural resource issues, and this year’s results show significantly greater support for conservation than previous years along with greater concern with a dwindling quality of life.

“The first survey was 10 years ago, and there’s been quite a few changes in that time. The COVID brought quite a few people to the state,” said UM professor Rick Graetz in a press call Tuesday. “One thing that has not changed - even the folks who are new here - the deep connection that we have to public lands and the shared recognition of our state’s natural beauty is still there. And that connection with the land, we see a strong bipartisan demand for conservation solutions and for maintaining public access.”

Between 2019 and 2021, the state’s growth rate surged to almost 2% a year, where it previously averaged less than 1%. Since 2014 when the survey started, Montana’s population has grown by more than 100,000 people to 1,133,000 at the end of 2023, according to the U.S. Census.

That’s led to rising home prices, more development in rural areas, increasing road traffic and crowding on the trails. So it’s not surprising that 62% of voters say their quality of life has gotten worse, a jump from two years ago when it was 55%.

“The level of anxiety has been there for a while but it seems to be gathering steam,” said FM3 pollster Dave Metz. FM3 conducts Democratic polling.

When asked what factors contributed to the decline in quality of life, between about 80% and 90% said drought, suburban sprawl across farmland, a loss of the state’s character, low snowpack and more crowded recreational areas were serious problems. More voters saw sprawl and the state’s changing character as having gotten worse compared to two years ago.

Almost 60% of voters felt the rate of growth in Montana is too fast, including residents of rural markets and all the larger cities except Great Falls, where 54% think the rate of growth is just right.

“It’s quite clear that residents all over the state, even out on the prairie, are struggling with growing pains and our quality of life is down this year, according to the results,” Graetz said.

Lori Weigel, pollster for New Bridge, a Republican polling company, questioned voters on seven conservation efforts and found strong support that cut across party lines for all seven.

Related to federal lands, three-quarters of voters support having the U.S. Forest Service allow public input on any hardrock mining proposals in the headwaters of the Smith River, and half are in strong support. The Bureau of Land Management recently proposed a new rule to create conservation leases to go along with grazing, mining and drilling leases and 70% support that. And when it comes to allowing U.S. presidents to designate national monuments using the Antiquities Act, 82% said they were in support, up from 78% in 2018 and 2020.

“The number of visits to public lands is significantly higher in Montana than elsewhere in the country. We look at the proportion of hunters or anglers as well, and that is significantly higher than in lots of other states,” Weigel said. “So the actual walking-the-walk instead of just talking-the-talk is definitely a Montana trait that we see demonstrated time and time again, and it’s one thing that has not changed about the character of the state.”

Closer to home, since 2020, three-quarters of Montana voters have backed the Lincoln Prosperity Proposal, which would create 55,000 acres of wilderness, along with more areas and trails for snowmobiles, motorized vehicles and mountain bikes around Lincoln.

More than 80% of voters support the designation of more Wild and Scenic rivers in Montana. Ironically, Montanans proposed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, but in the state, only the Missouri River above the Fort Peck Reservoir, portions of the North, Middle and South forks of the Flathead River, and East Rosebud Creek have wild and scenic designations.

When it comes to the seven Montana wilderness study areas managed by the Forest Service, at least half of voters since 2020 want to keep the areas at least as they are. But while the two previous polls saw 23% of voters wanting more protection for the areas, more than 30% want that protection this year.

Finally, 85% now support the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, which has been sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester since March 2017. That’s up from the 83% of support in the 2022 poll and coincides with the 84% of voters in support indicated by the Colorado College Public Lands Poll that came out in February. Plus, the support is high regardless of political affiliation, with 82% of Republicans and 94% of Democrats backing the act.

“Knowing that people are feeling concern about the rate of growth and the pace of development, it really does intensify some of the support for conservation efforts,” Weigel said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at