Preparing for big game hunting in Montana is an annual ritual. We’re getting gear in order and making room in our freezers. We’re studying maps, scouting locations and making travel plans. Many of us will find our ideal hunting spot in one of Montana’s greatest treasures – its vast tracts of public land. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that public lands will continue to provide the hunting opportunities that we expect. With rising development pressures on our public lands, it is important that we find balance to prevent additional losses of habitat and hunting and fishing opportunity.
Sportsmen and -women know that public lands provide quality habitat and water for wildlife and fish, as well as beautiful scenery that adds immeasurably to our hunting and fishing experience. Public lands, hunters, anglers and other wildlife enthusiasts also contribute to Montana’s economy. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation – including hunting and fishing – brings in nearly $6 billion annually in spending to Montana, supporting more than 64,000 Montana jobs.
Despite the value of wildlife recreation on public lands, there is an imbalance between energy development and habitat protection. The extent of this imbalance was underscored at a recent forum hosted by the Equal Ground Coalition, which represents organizations and businesses trying to restore balance between conservation and energy. One revealing statistic from the forum is that the federal government is leasing nearly three times more public land for energy production than it is permanently protecting.
Although energy development is important to our economy and way of life, and it is one of many legitimate uses of public land, its impacts are long-lasting and require more planning and stakeholder engagement. In order to compensate for adverse impacts to wildlife and wildlife habitat, we need to conserve additional public lands to offset development. Such protection could come through land use designations or management prescriptions that are designed to meet the needs of wildlife and habitat.
Can we restore balance between lands committed to energy development and protected for fish and wildlife? With help from Congress and the president, the answer is yes. Through significant stakeholder collaboration, Montana’s congressional delegation has proposed legislation to restore that balance. Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act gives priority to habitat and forest restoration while balancing wilderness protection and responsible timber management. Sen. Max Baucus’ Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act protects backcountry lands and balances additions to the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex with assurances for existing land uses. The North Fork Watershed Protection Act – a bipartisan bill supported by Rep. Steve Daines and Baucus and Tester – would withdraw the North Fork of the Flathead watershed from future oil and gas leasing without affecting existing lease holders.
We can develop energy resources and minimize the consequences to wildlife and habitat. Success will require action, however. These three legislative proposals make a good start and are supported by sportsmen and other Montanans. We can have energy development and quality habitat, but only if we work together. Montana’s wildlife, sportsmen, wildlife enthusiasts, future generations and economy depend on it.
Skip Kowalski is board president for the Montana Wildlife Federation.