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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Habitat Funding Stalls in Legislature

Swans at Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area
Montana FWP
Swans at Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area

Some state lawmakers want to call a halt to any new purchases of wildlife habitat by the state’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. It’s a debate about priorities, but some people say it’s also a case of political payback.

Ten miles north of downtown Helena, just off state highway 453, sits the Lake Helena Wildlife Management area, a 157-acre patch of natural vegetation bordered by the state highway, the lake, and several farms. Ron Aasheim with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks says this wildlife management area, and 79 more like it across the state, play a role in the state’s ecosystem, providing undeveloped, uncultivated places for native wildlife.

“We’ve acquired land fee title, conservation easements, and then leased property, and the purpose of all of that is for wildlife.” Aasheim said. “It’s wildlife habitat, there’s some wildlife management areas, there’ve been fishing access sites, those sorts of things. Again, all of it is habitat to maintain, conserve, manage our wildlife populations.”

For decades Fish, Wildlife and Parks, or FWP, has used fees from hunting and fishing licenses to pay for wildlife habitat. About a half-million acres is owned outright by FWP, and a similar amount is set aside through leases or “conservation easements”, where the agency pays the landowner not to develop the land. In the next two years FWP will collect about twelve million dollars in hunting and fishing license fees to acquire more habitat. But as the state budget now stands, the agency won’t be able to spend any of that money.

“I’ve traditionally opposed land acquisition by Fish, Wildlife and Parks until they can afford to take care of what they have now,” said State Senator Rick Ripley, a Republican from Wolf Creek. He first raised the idea of calling a halt to new land acquisition by Fish Wildlife and Parks. He says FWP can’t afford to take proper care of the land it already owns.

“Weed spraying, upkeep on fencing. They’ve acquired some parcels of land that they haven’t been able to open to public access. In my personal opinion they just need to take care of what they have before they continue to buy more land.” Ripley added.

Ripley’s idea gained momentum among the Republicans of the House Appropriations Committee. At a March 25 Appropriations hearing, Billings Republican Representative Dave Hagstrom said some lawmakers had issues with the agency.

“It’s really giving $10.5 million to the Department and saying, have at it, and we trust you; and I’m not saying that we don’t trust them, but at this point in time the committee didn’t feel like we should give them all that money,” Hagstrom said.

He introduced an amendment cutting the entire allocation for DWP’s biggest habitat program, called Habitat Montana, along with smaller habitat programs for upland game birds, Migratory birds, and bighorn sheep habitat, as well as a fund to acquire access into fishing sites - a total of about twelve million dollars. Democrats fought to keep the money.

“This particular fund is dedicated, and the migratory bird program is all duck money. It’s for waterfowl. It’s mom and apple pie stuff, really,” said Representative Janet Ellis, of Helena.

But as with many other budget amendments in this session, the vote went along party lines. The Republican majority won, and the money was cut -- at least for now. The controversy over habitat funding may be fallout from a controversial habitat purchase over two years ago. FWP paid nearly $5 million for 3,000 acres of the privately-owned Milk River ranch just below the Canadian border, about 45 miles northwest of Havre. George Golie, a lobbyist for the Montana Wildlife Federation, says conservative lawmakers weren’t the only ones upset that FWP spent so much on a single piece of land.

“Some of the sportsman’s groups did not endorse that purchase.” Golie said. “One of them in that area was Russell Country Sportsmen. We did not endorse that purchase, but it went through. And we can’t just pick and choose on what the sportsmen want and don’t want. We leave it up to the management, and to FWP and the land board. The land board has to approve those large purchases.”

Ron Aasheim with FWP agrees that the Milk River deal caused problems for his agency.

“Yeah, particularly with the Milk River Ranch, we’ve heard lots and lots of discussion that people didn’t approve of that. They didn’t like it. On the other hand we had people who said it’s a good deal,” Aasheim said.

But the Milk River purchase is a done deal; it closed at the end of 2012. Now FWP and wildlife organizations are waiting to see if the Senate will put back the $12 million in habitat funding that the House Appropriations Committee took out. If the budget is approved in its current form, FWP will be blocked from buying any new habitat, but money will continue to accumulate, as hunters and anglers buy new licenses:

“It has to be used for that unless the legislature makes a decision to change the law. What it would do is stay in the bank just like any other savings account, but for now it can’t be used on anything but what the law says it has to be used for, which is habitat acquisition.” Aasheim added.

House Bill 403, which includes the cuts to habitat funding, passed the state House last week and has been assigned to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee. No hearing has been scheduled on it yet.

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