On Thursday, February 22, lots of of hunters and anglers gathered on the steps of the state State Capitol in Helena, Montana. Huddled round propane heaters amid subzero temperatures, we’d come to protest a slew of newly-introduced payments that threaten the state’s hard-won tradition of fair-minded entry to looking, fishing, and public lands. If handed, the legislative measures would prohibit entry to public lands, siphon cash away from important conservation packages, threaten the state’s cherished stream entry legislation, and upend habitat protections enshrined within the Montana State Structure. 

As somebody who lately moved to Montana partially due to its entry to huge wild nation, I’d determined to go to Helena from my house within the Bitterroot Valley to attend the rally in individual. By the point I arrived on the capitol constructing, a crowd had already amassed. Hunters and anglers clapped, cheered, and chanted slogans in unison. It was 5 levels beneath zero with a windchill of -20, however these individuals have been on fireplace. The sound of their applause—muffled barely by heavy mittens and gloves—resonated throughout the north garden of the capitol. Then a collection of impassioned native audio system took the rostrum to air their grievances with the “unhealthy payments.” 

Public land rallies have grow to be one thing a fixture throughout Montana’s final 5 legislative classes. The objective is easy: Ship a transparent message to Huge Sky politicians that hunters and anglers gained’t stand idly by when threatened by political schemes designed to divest them of public floor or chip away at looking and fishing entry. 

Sadly, most of these schemes have grow to be all too acquainted in Montana, and different states within the West. Right here’s why hunters and anglers in Montana—and past—ought to care.

Stream Entry in Limbo 

SB497 is a invoice that threatened Montana’s famously sturdy stream entry legal guidelines by proscribing public easements by means of personal property. In Montana, all streams and rivers with the capability for leisure use are thought of public property. They’re open to fishing and a few types of looking, as long as recreators keep beneath the streambed’s excessive water mark. 

These legal guidelines, that are extensively thought to be among the greatest stream entry legal guidelines within the nation, have been argued and litigated over for many years. They have been enacted in 1985 by means of precedent established throughout hard-fought court docket circumstances. And so they’ve been propped up through the years by the diligent work of native rod and gun golf equipment. They’re fragile however extremely prized.

Montana has top-of-the-line stream entry legal guidelines within the nation. Travis Corridor

Within the days for the reason that public lands rally, SB497 and its proposed stream entry modification died a swift and public loss of life. After an rebellion that performed out on social media, and within the e-mail inboxes of state senators, it was killed by a 36-14 vote throughout its second studying on the Senate ground.

“This invoice actually poked the bear,” Marcus Unusual, Director of State Coverage and Authorities Affairs for the Montana Wildlife Federation advised Discipline & Stream. “Lawmakers heard from hundreds of hunters and anglers throughout Montana who rose as much as defend our stream entry legal guidelines. We hope this overwhelming response will remind lawmakers to rethink flouting our most cherished legal guidelines and rights to entry public lands and water.”

An Untraditional Supply of Conservation Funding Might Be Reduce

One other problematic invoice, HB462 offers with cash generated by means of the taxation of leisure marijuana, which was accepted by a voter referendum in Montana in 2020. The voters who supported marijuana legalization again in 2020 had one stipulation: They wished to see marijuana tax {dollars} funneled straight into public land administration and different conservation-minded causes. Extra particularly, they wished that cash to enter a state-run program referred to as Habitat Montana. 

In the long run, simply 20 p.c of the weed tax income was put aside for conservation. However that’s no small chunk of change. In keeping with the Missoula Present, marijuana gross sales are projected to carry greater than $50 million in tax income for the fiscal 12 months of 2024—and as a lot as $57 million in 2025. That income has allowed Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks (FWP) to amass new public lands and safe new conservation easements that open public entry to non-public floor through the state’s block administration program. 

mule deer in montana
The Habitat Montana program, administered by Montana FWP, supplies important funds for conservation easements and state land administration. Travis Corridor

HB462 would take away these funds from Habitat Montana and earmark the cash for legislation enforcement and substance abuse packages as a substitute. “Regardless of overwhelming help for this system, Governor [Greg] Gianforte’s finances and HB462 are each trying to wipe out this funding for Habitat Montana utterly,” the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) mentioned in a latest press launch supplied to Discipline and Stream. “We will’t let this occur. Montana voters need marijuana tax income for use for conservation and particularly, for Habitat Montana.”

Not like the aforementioned SB497, which was tossed out final week, HB462 remains to be awaiting a committee listening to. Montana BHA is joined in its opposition to the invoice by greater than a dozen conservation teams together with the Theodore Roosevelt Partnership, Geese Limitless, the Wild Sheep Basis, and the Montana Wildlife Federation. 

Equal Entry to Elk is a Main Flashpoint

There are a number of worrying payments addressing elk administration earlier than the Montana state legislature proper now, however probably the most troubling one is HB635. This invoice ensures 5 bull elk tags to absentee landowners with 2,500 acres or extra by slashing 15 p.c from the entire pool of non-resident elk tags. 

Opponents say HB635 conflicts with the North American Mannequin of Wildlife Conservation and places Montana on the trail of privatizing its public wildlife. “We don’t need to go down that highway,” Kevin Farron, regional coverage supervisor for Montana BHA, advised Discipline & Stream. “In relation to tag allocation, everytime you decide winners and losers primarily based on wealth and landownership, that’s a type of privatization. You’re telling individuals they get a much bigger piece of the general public useful resource pie, simply because they’ve extra money.”

It’s a path that may sound acquainted to anybody who lives in or hunts elk in New Mexico. Landowner desire and elk tag handouts have grow to be so prevalent within the Land of Enchantment that landowners will recurrently promote their elk tags in an unregulated, secondary market. 

elk in Montana
An elk herd grazes on personal land in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. Travis Corridor

The hundreds of {dollars} that change palms in trade for these coveted landowner elk tags don’t go into the coffers of New Mexico Recreation and Fish, which suggests the cash doesn’t profit conservation. That’s the kind of privatized, pay-to-play mannequin that Farron and different Montana BHA members are resisting. “We absolutely recognize and worth that personal landowners provide towards our public wildlife—and so they deserve not simply our thanks, however they deserve some compensation,” he mentioned. “What we predict is problematic is utilizing our public wildlife as a bargaining chip as that incentive, reward, or compensation.”

An Embarrassment of Riches

On my means into Helena from my house in Stevensville that morning, I’d pushed by means of a small swath of the wild nation the general public land rally-goers have been so eager to guard. I handed timber-framed views of a frozen and snow-covered Blackfoot River as I drove out of Missoula. Once I hit I-90, I started to parallel the trout-rich waters of the well-known Clark Fork. I considered a mule deer doe I’d taken with my bow on the general public land surrounding a close-by move—and a herd of bighorn sheep I’d seen final October after a day of fly fishing with a buddy alongside the banks of Rock Creek. 

Once I veered east onto Freeway 12 to finish the final leg of the drive, I discovered myself within the shadow of the Boulder Mountains, surrounded by thousands and thousands of acres of Nationwide Forest, earlier than a white-knuckle drive up and down MacDonald Go spit me out in Helena. The surroundings was unimaginable. It left me craving for extra time within the mountains and extra miles logged within the “embarrassment of riches”—to borrow a phrase from longtime Discipline & Stream contributor Hal Herring—that all of us name “public lands.” 

All advised, these riches quantity to greater than 30 million acres of state and federal land in Montana alone. They’re shared by all of us: Hunters and anglers, rock climbers and kayakers, and residents and non-residents. The present threats dealing with public land hunters and anglers in Montana aren’t blatant land grabs or makes an attempt to switch federal lands into state possession. They’re subtler and extra insidious than that.

Whether or not these threats will truly take maintain stays to be seen. What I realized in Helena final month that merely can’t be denied is that hunters and anglers in Montana won’t ever lie down and watch it occur.

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