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Elections forecast big changes for landscape

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gold creek hunting

A hunter watches evening approach in the Gold Creek Area northeast of Missoula during the 2016 big-game hunting season. 

In the dictionary, a watershed refers to a place defined by a river drainage and a “crucial dividing point.”

For Montana’s conservation and environmental communities, the 2020 election will mark watershed moments on watershed landscapes across the state. Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte will take the governor’s office after 16 years of Democratic administration. And if Democrat Joe Biden turns out victorious in the presidential election, President Donald Trump’s political appointees at the Department of Interior, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture will see their agendas of energy dominance and deregulation overturned.

Judy Martz was the last Republican to hold the governor’s office, and her term ended in 2004. Since then, Democratic governors Brian Schweitzer and Steve Bullock have named the department heads and set the statewide agendas for departments of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Environmental Quality, Natural Resources and Conservation.

The officials serving under those department heads — the division administrators and other career staff — are not political appointees and don’t necessarily change from governor to governor. But they do take their marching orders, and get their funding, from the governor of the day.

“A new director can certainly shift senior personnel around in an agency,” said Gary Wolfe, a former state Fish and Wildlife Commission member. “They can put someone in a position they don’t want to be in and get them to quit or retire, so they can bring in people more to their thinking.”

But those changes can have immediate and far-reaching effects on Montana lifestyle. For example, due to term limits and one resignation, Gianforte will get to appoint four of the five members of the Fish and Wildlife Commission at the start of his office. Those seats are usually staggered to disperse the chance of a single leader dominating the makeup. The commission sets hunting seasons, fair-chase rules and other decisions that have direct effect on Montana’s hunters and anglers.

Regime change may also happen at the federal level. While some government actions have almost unstoppable inertia, others can turn like a dancer. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Montana Chapter Chairman John Sullivan pointed to the U.S. Forest Service’s ongoing forest plan updates, which involve months or sometimes years of public comment, draft reviews and revisions.

“Then you can have something like the Tongass (National Forest in Alaska) where the Trump Administration opened up  the Roadless Rule by executive order,” Sullivan said. “A new president could reverse that quickly with another executive order.”

On the interstate level, Montana’s governors have worked with their neighbors on issues like sage grouse conservation — a multi-state habitat management effort intended to keep the bird from needing much more intrusive protection under the Endangered Species Act. For animals already under federal protection like grizzly bears, the governors of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have been frequent influencers. Gov. Bullock just received recommendations from his Grizzly Bear Advisory Committee on how the state should manage the predator if it gets turned over to state oversight. Gianforte has no obligation to read those recommendations, although they were developed by a nonpartisan, statewide group that invested a year in the effort.

The governor has also taken the lead negotiating with the federal government on issues like forest management, wildfire, Superfund projects, endangered species management and water quality. Helena leadership sets a tone for tourism promotion, recreation development, and the kinds of businesses targeted for economic assistance.

International relations occasionally get a state angle, such as when Schweitzer worked out a memorandum of understanding with British Columbia to protect the North Fork of the Flathead River from mining development.

A similar cross-border issue is developing along the Lake Koocanusa reservoir and the Elk River in British Columbia, which is pouring dangerous levels of mining chemicals into the water system. Montana may also play a significant role in the negotiations for a Columbia River treaty between the United States and Canada, as the Clark Fork and Flathead river systems form important parts of that watershed.

How Gianforte aligns with his Republican majorities in the Legislature will also be worth watching. As a member of Congress, he supported the Great American Outdoors Act and its full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. As governor, he will have lots of influence in how potential wildlife habitat projects may attract that federal funding. But some members of the Legislature have repeatedly tried to scale back the state’s ability to acquire new land.

“Habitat Montana is Montana’s premier conservation and access program, and it’s getting more interest from farmers and ranchers than it’s ever had,” said Nick Gevock of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “The only way you make one of these deals happen is if the land owner wants it to become public land. That should be that way, so it undergoes the thorough public scrutiny it deserves. But Legislature has consistently attacked net-gain bills for new state lands.”

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