Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) After some bills in the 2021 Legislature took their toll on wildlife and hunting opportunity, some legislators are proposing bills to preserve Montana’s wildlife and hunting heritage.

As the 2023 Legislature gets underway, at least 14 bills are awaiting introduction that seek to improve wildlife habitat and opportunity for your average resident hunter. Rep. Tom France, D-HD94, will be vice-chair of the House Fish, Wildlife & Parks committee and is hoping to get at least a few of those bills through committee.

“What we have is a package that addresses a lot of what we’ve heard from Montana sportsmen by way of improving and strengthening both our on-the-ground wildlife management and our habitat protection programs,” France said. “A lot of Montana ranches are bought not for ranchers but for recreational purposes. We watch FWP become more interested in landowner relations than they are in hunting and fishing. So we’re trying to find solutions that are going to protect access, protect our hunting and fishing heritage, and speak to the average Montana sportsman and woman, rather than the select few who can afford these big-time hunts.”

Access to private land is a controversial issue. Some landowners allow people to hunt on their land by permission, and some do so through Montana’s Block Management program, which reimburses landowners for the wear-and-tear that can accompany hunting.

Hunters want to encourage these landowners so one bill would increase the daily amount per hunter paid to landowners. Another bill sponsored by FWP would increase the total amount landowners could get for the entire season to $50,000 from $25,000.

“We’re supporting an increase in the Block Management cap,” said Marcus Strange of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “We’ve got a lot of cooperators who have been emphasizing that they’d like to participate but the costs continue to go up. We feel like this is a commonsense move to make. We’ve got the money so let’s do it.”

Other access issues

On the other side of the access coin are landowners and outfitters who sell hunts on their land so they don’t allow public access. Outfitters can make as much as $8,000 to $10,000 per elk hunter, but public hunters say they’re making money off the public’s wildlife.

During the 2021 legislative session, some bills passed that gave outfitters benefits such as House Bill 637, which created unlimited outfitter-sponsored nonresident big game licenses for a year and gave nonresident hunters using an outfitter an extra preference point for combination elk-deer licenses.

To counter that, sportsmen are backing a bill that would require hunters to disclose whether they’re leasing land to hunt on. If they are, they’d be required to pay a surcharge of 10% of the lease value.

“That would then go into the Habitat Montana and Block Management programs to offset the land that is going to exclusive use for a few, so it would expand and strengthen programs that are designed for everyday hunters. It’s recognizing that hunters control their sport and their own destiny and are not looking to landowners to somehow be involved,” France said.

HB637 also eliminated the 12-hour waiting period between when hunters buy a bear or lion license and when they start hunting. The waiting period was to ensure hunters didn’t shoot first and buy a license later. With that waiting period gone, FWP is proposing a bill this year to eliminate the 24-hour waiting period for wolf licenses, saying it would “make everything consistent.”

One bill would end the release of captive pheasants and put the money toward block management funds specific to bird hunting. Pheasant hunters were annoyed in 2021 that FWP volunteered to give the Montana State Prison $1 million to raise pheasants as part of a work program after the prison lost its contract to produce milk for Darigold.

FWP released the pheasants for the youth openers, saying it would help recruit new hunters. However, pen-raised pheasants don’t survive well in the wild and don’t react to hunters the same as wild pheasants.

“They’ll say it’s helping youth hunting, but we have no data and no program to back that up. It’s a waste of sportsmen’s dollars on a program that doesn’t produce any improvement in our wild bird populations and in fact threatens them through introduced diseases,” France said. “We’d invest them into block management closer to our urban centers so that there is opportunity for young people to go out and hunt wild birds rather than a fake experience."

Sportsmen are backing another bird-related bill sponsored by FWP that would remove the bird-stocking requirement for landowners seeking money for habitat improvements favoring upland game birds like grouse and huns. Strange is just worried that legislators would move the stocking money into a different pot.

“Getting the stocking requirement out of that puts the focus solely on habitat and frees up a lot of funding. As long as the agency sticks to what they’re saying right now, which is that all the money would stay there and go into habitat restoration, we’re excited to support it. We just gotta keep an eye on it,” Strange said.

New bills would create funding programs

Two bills would create new funding programs.France sponsored a bill in the last Legislature that would create Montana Hunters and Anglers Community Fund, where hunters could donate money to organizations in the rural communities where they hunt. It was just one vote away from passing the House last session.

“It would be a way to say thank you to rural communities where they go to hunt and fish by supporting the nonprofits that are so important: everything from food banks to meals on wheels to high school boosters,” France said. “These NGO’s face the same challenges as those in bigger communities but they don’t have the resources.”

Another bill proposed by a citizens’ elk coalition would create a Wildlife Habitat Trust using $200 million of the money left over from the federal American Rescue Plan, which was intended to bolster the economy during the height of the pandemic. The habitat improvement program would use matching grants and would be funneled through government agencies or nonprofit organizations.

France knows some bills might face some opposition as legislators battle over state money.

“When we come up with new ideas for legislation, the Legislature will often take a session or two to come to terms with something they haven’t heard before. Some of these are new ideas, and we’re hoping they’ll get a strong reception and pass,” France said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at