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A pair of trapping organizations violated state campaign finance laws and should be prosecuted, according to the Montana commissioner of political practices.

The ruling released Thursday found the Montana Trappers Association and Montanans for Effective Wildlife Management “failed to report as contributions the amounts (approximately $25,000) paid by bidders in the trappers' anti I-169 auction, as required by Montana law.”

It also found the two groups failed to report expenses of activity opposing I-169. And it ruled that Montanans for Effective Wildlife Management improperly followed state naming rules “because it did not identify the economic and special interest of ‘trappers’ in its name.”

The ruling supported the claims of Trap Free Montana Public Lands, a group lobbying to prohibit animal trapping.

The two sides have clashed repeatedly over efforts to put trapping prohibitions on state election ballots.

In 2014, Montanans for Effective Wildlife Management treasurer Jim Buell won a settlement against Montanans for Trap-Free Public Lands for improper campaign finance reporting, which resulted in a $240 fine.

Initiative 169 failed to raise enough signatures to get on the 2014 ballot. Members of Trap Free Montana Public Lands could not be reached for comment Friday.

Toby Walrath of the Montana Trappers Association said his group would challenge the ruling.

“We’ve reviewed those findings, and they’re not based on any substantial fact,” said Walrath, of Corvallis. “The investigation in our opinion was not handled properly.”

In particular, Walrath noted that Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl previously represented Footloose Montana in private practice. He said the commissioner should have recused himself from the case.

Asked about that decision, Motl said he believed there was enough separation of time from his private practice to avoid conflict-of-interest challenges. He also said his office lacked the budget to hire outside investigators.

“The relative complexity of this thing would have cost the office a small fortune to bring in a substitute person to write it, and we just don’t have the money to do that,” Motl said. “That’s a decision I make on a case-by-case basis, and I’ve only recused myself in one case where one of the people involved was a personal friend.”

The commissioner of political practices refers such recommendations for prosecution to the appropriate local county attorney’s office – Lewis and Clark County in this case. However, Motl said of the last roughly 100 cases, almost all have been returned to the commissioner’s office for resolution.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.