During the past week, several opinions have been written about how terrible it is that the Legislature cut spending authority for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Groups like the Montana Wildlife Federation, Public Land/Water Access Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and several hunting groups are crying foul over the funding cut. They all claim that it’s sportsmen license dollars that have created all this wonderful wildlife in Montana, and without the funding critical habitat and access will vanish.
With the vast majority of Montana’s big game species residing on habitat provided by private landowners, the facts contradict that claim.
Habitat is land. Using tax dollars to purchase private land doesn't add more habitat, it just changes who owns the property. It also doesn't add more access—many of the properties FWP has purchased in recent years have been designated “limited access” wildlife management areas.
The spending the legislature is cutting is all about land purchases, past and future. The initial goal of Habitat Montana was to purchase conservation easements, not to purchase land. But FWP has been on a land-buying spree for several years and wants to continue this in the name of preserving “critical” habitat.
Just what is critical habitat? Recently, for instance, the Sun River Game Range was well over the population objective FWP had set for maintaining the health of the herd and the habitat. Elk were spilling over onto neighboring ranches and it was creating a serious problem. FWP’s solution was not to reduce the elk herd in order to protect the habitat—it was to try to buy the adjacent land. That deal fell through, but this seems to be FWP’s solution to all wildlife problems.
When most sportsmen buy a hunting and fishing license they probably have no idea of the percentage of the license cost diverted into a slush fund that has been used by FWP for land purchases. And the bitter irony is that FWP uses that money to buy land on which it then shuts down or limits access.
One way to discover who supports these programs would be to separate them out from the license fees and make them a voluntary purchase, instead of a mandatory purchase to hunt or fish. FWP is a wildlife management agency and their dollars would be better spent in management of wildlife than land purchases and the subsequent management that goes along with owning it.
Since 1988, fee title ownership purchased by FWP through Habitat Montana alone totals 117,868 acres, costing $42.9 million in Habitat Montana funds.
The legislature got it right by cutting the spending authority for these programs. Buying land is the least-efficient means of protecting habitat and increasing access—the funding cut in question means those dollars will be spent more responsibly with better outcomes for wildlife, sportsmen and habitat.