Andrew McKean

There’s been a lot of talk across Montana since the 2020 election about fraud in our electoral process, but despite searching hard for evidence of corrupt practices or behaviors, lawmakers haven’t been able to find much evidence of malfeasance.

Instead of looking in county courthouses and precinct ballot boxes, they should look within the halls of the legislature and governor’s office for the most brazen attempt to steal an election since Montana’s Copper Collar era. It’s the attempt to thwart the will of Montana voters and redirect revenue from the 2020 ballot initiative that legalized sale of recreational cannabis.

The latest electoral theft could happen in broad daylight this Wednesday, Feb. 15, at 3 p.m., as the House Appropriations Committee considers House Bill 462. The bill, sponsored by Clancy Republican Marta Bertoglio, would overturn voters’ decision to earmark a portion of marijuana tax revenue for habitat and outdoor recreation. The bill mirrors Governor Gianforte’s budget, in which he proposes to eliminate voter-approved funding for Habitat Montana, the state’s most successful conservation program.

I have two beefs with this attempt to undermine the voters’ will. The first is philosophical. Ballot Initiative 190 passed with 57 percent approval in an election that saw Montana vote overwhelmingly for President Trump and Republican state legislators. The passage of I-190 was interpreted as a referendum on individual rights but it was also pitched to voters as a creative way to acquire wildlife habitat in the state.

According to terms of the initiative, 20 percent of marijuana-tax revenue would be earmarked for conservation, adding pot-tax receipts to the Habitat Montana fund. The attempt by Gianforte and the Republican legislative supermajority to redirect that revenue without returning the question to voters strikes me as the epitome of we-know-best big government. It can also be defined as election fraud.

But my bigger concern is the misguided desire to starve the most successful engine for conservation funding in the history of Montana. Habitat Montana was created by the state legislature in 1987 as a mechanism to either purchase or place conservation easements on critical wildlife habitat.

Fueled mainly by non-resident hunting licenses, Habitat Montana generates around $6 million a year and has been used to conserve vital winter range for big-game herds, to guarantee recreational access in fast-growing Western valleys, and to provide perpetual habitat and access on working ranches across the state through conservation easements. In my part of Northeastern Montana, conservation easements funded by Habitat Montana have been a valuable tool to keep hard-working ranchers on their land while also guaranteeing recreational access forever.

Most recently, Habitat Montana funded last year’s purchase of the 5,700-acre Big Snowy Mountains Wildlife Management Area north of Billings. The purchase conserves critical wildlife habitat, but more significantly, opens hunting access to more than 100,000 of elk-rich country in the Big Snowy Mountains. Gov. Gianforte himself touted the purchase in remarks to the shooting and hunting industry last month in Las Vegas.

“In Montana, recreation in many cases is about access,” he told fellow Western governors. “We have been using conservation easements and partnerships” to open access to thousands of acres of federal land. Gianforte later cited his administration’s work on the Lower Yellowstone River as an example of using land acquisitions to boost local economies by improving recreational access.

He’s exactly right. Just as Montana’s voters were right to broaden the funding base of Habitat Montana with marijuana taxes. Given the unprecedented growth of the human population in Montana, skyrocketing real estate prices, and increasing pressure on our limited and fragile wildlife habitats, we need more conservation funding, not less. I-190 was—and is—a genius way to future-proof our most critical landscapes.

Any Montanan who cares about open spaces, resilient wildlife habitats, and recreational access—along with election integrity—should oppose any attempt to misdirect the will of the voters. The House Appropriations Committee will hear HB462 at 3 p.m. on Wednesday.