A dozen sportsmen’s groups are asking Montana’s governor to veto a bill that would allow the state Land Board to veto conservation easements that would benefit hunters and wildlife.

Last week, the Montana Sporting Coalition and the Montana Wildlife Federation sent letters to Gov. Greg Gianforte asking him to veto Senate Bill 115 sponsored by Keith Regier, R-Kalispell. The bill is sitting on Gianforte’s desk, having already passed through both houses of the Legislature on party-line votes with Democrats opposed, although it was amended twice.

The bill would require the state Land Board to approve all conservation easements that Fish, Wildlife & Parks wants to acquire using Habitat Montana money.

The Sportsmen’s Coalition letter said the bill “adds a layer of unneeded government bureaucracy into conservation easements under Habitat Montana.”

“SB 115 would subject landowners to an arbitrary process in which their ability to exercise their private property rights are in doubt. When the Legislature approved Habitat Montana, its intent was not to place more people not engaged in the work that goes into crafting an easement in charge of private property rights, nor was its intent to have these easements go before the Land Board,” the letter said.

This has implications for a FWP project that is underway just south of Lolo. The agency is working on the opportunity to buy a conservation easement on former Maclay Ranch land that would preserve a wildlife corridor for elk and other species needing to cross the rapidly developing Bitterroot Valley.

If SB 115 passes, the Republican Land Board could eliminate the only possibility of saving significant open land spanning the valley.

The battle over Habitat Montana money and FWP conservation easements has ramped up over several years.

The 1987 Legislature approved the allocation of several million in hunting license dollars each biennium to the Habitat Montana fund, which FWP can use to buy fee-title land and conservation easements to preserve habitat.

The Graveley Ranch easement just north of Garrison is a tricky combination of easements and land purchases. (Five Valleys Land Trust)
The Graveley Ranch easement just north of Garrison is a tricky combination of easements and land purchases. (Five Valleys Land Trust)

Since then, and especially over the past decade, some legislators have tried to put limits on Habitat Montana money in response to FWP actions they didn’t like, such as the purchase of the Milk River Ranch property backed by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, or the transplant of Yellowstone National Park bison to the Fort Peck reservation in 2012.

In response, the 2015 Legislature passed a bill that limited Habitat Montana money to the purchase of only conservation easements for two years.

Recently, Republicans have pushed against the purchase of even conservation easements.

FWP proposals for conservation easements were regularly presented to the land board for information purposes. But in March 2018, three Republican board members held up the purchase of the Horse Creek easement, putting it in jeopardy. Gov. Steve Bullock finalized the easement three months later.

In response, former Montana Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman asked former Attorney General Tim Fox to issue an opinion. In October 2018, Fox declared that the Land Board should have to approve all FWP conservation easements of more than 100 acres or costing more than $100,000.

Within a week, Bullock asked the Montana Supreme Court to overturn Fox’s opinion.

In December, the Montana Supreme Court sided with Bullock 6-1, saying that a conservation easement didn’t qualify as “land acquisition,” over which the land board has a say.

“Nowhere in the Code does the term generically stand for lesser, non-possessory interest in land,” Supreme Court Justice Mike McGrath later wrote.

Two months later, during the 2019 Legislature, Rep. Kerry White sponsored House Bill 265, the predecessor of the current SB 115, giving the land board authority over conservation easements.

White’s HB 265 also made it through both houses, passing on mostly party-line votes, but was ultimately vetoed by Bullock.

Now sportsmen are asking Gianforte to do the same.

In the Montana Wildlife Federation letter, Federation president Tom Puchlerz asked Gianforte to leave the decisions in the hands of the FWP commissioners, four of whom Gianforte will have appointed.

“Conservation easements under Habitat Montana keep working farms and ranches, and timberlands, in production. They conserve and protect from development important wildlife habitat. And they open access not only to those private lands, but almost always adjoining and inholdings of public lands. These easements are good for our agriculture and timber industries, good for our wildlife and good for the hunters of Montana. Let’s continue to allow Habitat Montana to serve as our best conservation and access program, and build the relationship between hunters and landowners,” Puchlerz wrote.

The Montana Sportsmen’s Coalition includes the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, National Wildlife Federation, Montana Wildlife Federation, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Montana Sportsmen Alliance, Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, Mule Deer Foundation, Montana Bowhunters Association, The Wildlife Society and Orion, the Hunter’s Institute.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.