Even though the 2013 Legislature has adjourned, hunters and anglers should be keeping an eye on the Environmental Quality Council’s meetings this summer, the first of which will be June 19 and 20 in Helena.
On the group’s agenda are consideration of Fish, Wildlife and Parks license structure — including fees charged and reduced fees offered to certain groups — as well as a study of the management of federal lands within Montana.
Both topics were dictated by the Legislature and kicked over to the EQC for further study — the license structure study was outlined in House Bill 609, and the federal lands study came in a joint resolution, SJ15.
FWP has estimated that about $4 million in potential revenue is lost to licenses sold at reduced rates to a variety of hunters and anglers, including senior citizens, youths, veterans and former residents who come home to hunt. The department is also seeing a decline in hunting license sales, particularly for antelope, whose populations have declined from winter kill, drought and disease. Fishing license sales have trended up, whereas resident and nonresident deer B tag sales have declined, as has the demand for nonresident hunter combination licenses.
Nonresident licenses generate the most for FWP coffers. As of last week, the agency still had 1,692 nonresident big game combination licenses, 2,291 nonresident elk licenses and 1,039 nonresident deer licenses available.
Overall, though, license revenue to the department has remained relatively flat between fiscal years 2007 and 2012, with the exception of a sharp drop in fiscal year 2010 for licenses whose fees are earmarked for certain funds.
The EQC won’t make any decision on what to do, but will make a recommendation to the Legislature, possibly in the form of a draft bill. The recommendations could include simplifying the licensing structure and/or reducing or eliminating some of the free or reduced licenses offered. FWP staff has already indicated a need to raise all license fees as the agency’s savings account is becoming depleted.
Legislators’ goals for the EQC study of federal lands seem a bit more unclear. SJ15 directs the EQC to analyze federal lands and “identify significant concerns or risks associated with these lands relative to: environmental quality; economic productivity and sustainability; public health, safety and welfare; consistency with state and local objectives; and ownership and jurisdictional responsibilities.”
The resolution also states that “federal funding and the capacity for responsible management of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands are in serious jeopardy while critical threats such as beetle kills, invasive species, watershed degradation, access restrictions, and catastrophic wildfires continue to escalate.”
Critics have said the resolution is nothing more than a renewal of the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1980s, when Western states sought greater control over the use and management of federal lands.
There’s no doubt federal lands play a huge role in the state. Montana counts more than 33.3 million acres of public land, or about 35 percent of the state’s 94 million acres. The federal government annually pays the state a fee, called payment in lieu of taxes (PILT), for the 27.2 million acres it manages, the majority of which, 17 million acres, is U.S. Forest Service property. Last year, those funds totaled more than $26 million, with two counties — Lewis and Clark and Flathead — each receiving more than $2.1 million.
In addition to these topics, the EQC will also receive reports on wolf management, including the new laws meant to reduce wolf numbers; get an update on the Governor’s Sage Grouse Advisory Council, and receive an overview of the coming fire season.
The meetings can be live-streamed on the Internet. A complete agenda for the meeting can also be found online.