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Inside the halls of Montana’s Legislature, conservation groups are bracing for bills that might affect what happens in the state’s outdoors.

While few completed bills are available, hunting, hiking and wildlife-oriented organizations are expecting a tinkering-around-the-edges session for 2019. That said, some issues like managing aquatic invasive species will have a statewide impact.

A number of organizations have support for the Habitat Montana program high on their list. The fund takes in about $12 million a year for wildlife-related land acquisitions, conservation easements and related expenses.

“We expect there will be some action to put restrictions on that account,” said Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation government affairs director Mark Lambrecht. “When you see a large sum of money, the Legislature tends to want to use that for different purposes.”

That happened in the 2015 session, when the Legislature removed Habitat Montana’s spending authority for two years. A coalition of supporters reversed that action in 2017.

Montana Wilderness Association Director Ted Brewer said his organization would also be backing Habitat Montana while watching for other changes to improving public lands.

“The Montana Supreme Court overturned the attorney general’s legal opinion on (Gov. Steve) Bullock's power to complete conservation easements,” Brewer said. “The Legislature might try to overturn that court decision.”

The Elk Foundation’s Lambrecht said elk hunting opportunities may come up through policies on access to private land. Some proposals he’d seen would reward landowners who permit hunters to pursue game on their property with extra elk tags for their private use.

At the Montana Wildlife Federation, Nick Gevock said he expected changes to come to the Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ automated license system. The department receives nearly all its operating budget through sale of licenses and permits for fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities.

“That’s got a very steep price tag, about $10 million,” Gevock said. “But they’re still working with their original system. Who’s still using a 20-year-old computer?”

Gevock expects an effort to add one or two more grizzly bear conflict management specialists to FWP’s budget. The positions have been very successful around the Rocky Mountain Front and west of the Continental Divide. Gevock said more staff would help people adapt to grizzlies in Red Lodge and Butte, which surveil linkage corridors the bears are using to move between big recovery areas.

In a federal funding issue, Gevock said to watch for debate over how the state uses federal funds to pay for game warden activities. In the 2017 session, the Legislature required 30 percent of game warden salaries to be paid through the federal Pittman-Robinson fund, which has strict limits about its use. In particular, those dollars can’t be used for law enforcement.

“That has led to more than 600 hours a year where game wardens can’t do enforcement,” Gevock said. “If you don’t comply, you’re jeopardizing $28 million a year, so it’s a big deal. Landowners are seeing fewer patrols.”

Outfitting is the fourth-largest in direct expenditures by nonresidents in Montana’s tourism market,” Minard said, “and we’re doing it with an incredibly limited number of licenses. Is that really how you want to treat an industry that’s so incredibly valuable to the state?”

Brewer, the Wilderness Association director, is keeping an eye on a proposed increase to the optional light vehicle fee from $6 to $9 that would pay for more work on public trails in Montana.

“With the Forest Service and other land management agencies so woefully underfunded, there’s an enormous backlog of maintenance needs on trails,” Brewer said. “This is a good opportunity for the state to alleviate the situation a bit.”

Brewer was also bracing for additional challenges to wilderness study areas after last year’s long public debate over whether Congress should rescind those designations. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans, each authored bills in Congress to do that in 2018, basing their action on a resolution approved by the 2017 Legislature. In response, conservation groups mounted demonstrations and polls indicating large public support for keeping those areas protected until more thorough federal analysis or action can be completed.

The federal bills both failed to reach a congressional vote before the end of the 2018 session. Brewer said nevertheless, he expected the debate to continue this year.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.