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A herd of cow elk and yearlings gathers on a hilltop in the dawn light.

HELENA – Montana may look to broaden its funding base for fish and wildlife management, but it likely will not happen by the next legislative session.

Finding Common Ground, a diverse group that includes wildlife advocates and enthusiasts, hunting groups, outdoor business interests, and fish and wildlife commissioners, first convened last year to study shared values and potential new funding sources for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The group met for the final time in Helena on Thursday and agreed on recommendations for a handful of potential funding mechanisms and the importance of continuing future efforts.

Nearly all of FWP’s funding comes through license sales and federal excise taxes on fishing equipment and firearms. Far more people and businesses benefit from fish and wildlife management, the group agreed, but finding ways to monetize a broader base is both challenging and breaking with history.

“We’ve gone from an era of wildlife depletion to wildlife abundance and taken the model to its apex,” said Ben Lamb, a consultant from Helena. “Now that we’re starting to see some of that funding side go away, we want to continue that upward momentum.”

FWP assembled Finding Common Ground following statewide hearings and more than 50,000 public comments on a proposed wolf management stamp intended to generate funding for management of the predators. Several conservation groups wanted the funds to only go toward nonlethal management, while some hunters expressed concern over how the influx of money from non-hunters could influence the agency.

With several unresolved issues from the public and within the agency, and indications that a proposed license fee increase could be in jeopardy in the last Legislature if FWP proceeded, Director Jeff Hagener said in rejecting the proposal that he did not see the stamp as helping the agency manage wildlife.

Finding Common Ground picked up where the wolf stamp conversation left off and revisited the idea for a voluntary wildlife management stamp as one potential option while looking at how other states fund their programs. Other funding mechanisms that gained traction included establishing a natural resource trust fund for funding projects or a severance tax on resource extraction with proceeds dedicated to wildlife; tapping the governor’s emergency funds for disease outbreaks or other emergencies; charging a boat launch or fishing access site user fee; expanding the use of the conservation license; and creating a new recreation license.

“Education is a huge component of this,” said Erin Edge of Defenders of Wildlife. “We need to tell people, ‘What does FWP do for me? What do we value? How do we have similarities?’ ”

For several wildlife advocates in the group, a shift is needed in how they are viewed by an agency charged with managing wildlife for all citizens and not just its traditional funding bases.

Marc Cooke of Bitterroot Valley-based Wolves of the Rockies said he too often hears hunters and fishermen taking credit for funding fish and wildlife recovery, but unwilling to allow anyone else at the table.

“Now people want to step up to the plate with funding and money once we find a mechanism, but there’s a resistance,” he said. “I’d like to see that barrier come down and develop relationships with all you folks. We’ll not agree on everything, but we can agree that wildlife is important for our kids.”

With a potential delisting of grizzly bears on the horizon, the fight could drive a wedge between those for and against delisting, Cooke said, and undo any progress a group like Finding Common Ground could make.

The report and recommendations will be compiled for Hagener, who said there has been some interest among legislators on the Environmental Quality Council to hear the findings. A short-term plan to push recommendations into law does not seem feasible, but the efforts are important considerations for long-term department funding, he said.

The discussion mirrors efforts at the national level, specifically a blue-ribbon panel looking at new federal funding mechanisms for state wildlife management, Hagener added.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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