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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Legislative Debate Over Aquatic Invasive Species Funding Begins

Hearing room at the Montana Capitol.
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio
Hearing room at the Montana Capitol.

Anglers, boaters, farmers and conservationists are all backing a new proposal at the state Legislature to spend $6.5 million fighting aquatic invasive species, but they disagree over who should foot the bill. The measure had its first hearing Monday.

Funding sunsets this year for the state’s boat inspection stations and lake monitoring program that aim to keep costly invasive species like quagga and zebra mussels, eurasian water millfoil and whirling disease out of Montana.

Missoula Democratic Representative Willis Curdy is carrying a new funding mechanism on behalf of the Environmental Quality Council that would add a prevention fee to motorized and non-motorized boat licenses, continue an existing fee on fishing licenses, and dip into the general fund to secure about $6.5 million each year.

The Montana Environmental Quality Council's proposed funding structure for Montana’s AIS programs.
Credit Montana EQC
The Montana Environmental Quality Council's proposed funding structure for Montana’s AIS programs.

The Council says this bill fairly taps the user groups most likely to bring invasive species into the state, along with those likely to be impacted by a potential zebra or quagga mussel infestation.

At the bill’s first hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee Monday, 13 people representing farms, irrigators, and weed and conservation districts supported the bill, including Jay Bodner with the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

"We think it's important to look at, looking at some of the sources of contamination, where does that come from, are we putting that on in-state boats, out-of-state boats; and we think that's an important provision also. But also putting it in the general fund, because it does have the potential to impact every single one of us here in Montana," Bodnar said.

Five people representing angling and wildlife groups said they supported the goal of this bill but not the funding mechanism it outlined.

Clayton Elliott is with Montana Trout Unlimited.

"Outdoor recreation and the angling community is a significant industry in Montana that stands to lose a lot, just like agriculture, our municipalities, etc, etc. The difference is we're the only ones being asked to pay. The burden can’t just be on anglers and recreationalists," Elliot said.

Under Curdy’s bill, anglers and motorized and non-motorized boaters would pay an estimated half to two-thirds of prevention costs. The state general fund would make up the rest.

For the past two years, a fee on fishing licenses covered a little less than half of the program, about $3 million. An annual fee on hydropower producers and co-ops covered the rest about $3.7 million. Legislators in 2017 assured hydropower facilities that the fee was a “bridge” measure that would not be part of a long-term funding scheme.

Legislators on Monday questioned that agreement, as did Tom Livers with the governor’s Budget Office. Livers, who spoke against Curdy’s bill, says another one will be introduced soon that includes funding from hydro.

"The big difference is instead of general fund reliance, it will continue an assessment on fees, the existing one to large investor-owned hydroelectric facilities," Livers said.

Funding and grants from tribal, federal and non-government partners is not factored into Curdy’s bill.

At its worst, an infestation of zebra or quagga mussels could cost Montana $234 million each year in lost revenue and mitigation costs, a recent report from the Montana Invasive Species Council estimates. There’s no surefire way of eradicating the mussels from open water.


Related: SubSurface: Resisting Montana's Underwater Invaders

What happens if Montana fails to stop the coming invasion of zebra and quagga mussels threatening the state's water bodies? MTPR's Nicky Ouellet looks into Montana's future (or one possible future) to see how the invasive mussels changed the Great Lakes region, and examines Montana's efforts to detect and prevent their spread. Learn more now with SubSurface.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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