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Ballot initiative seeking to expand landowners' hunting access met with committee opposition

A ballot initiative seeking to allow landowners to hunt elk, deer and black bears on their property hit a setback last Wednesday when the Environmental Quality Council voted not to support the measure.

At issue is Initiative I-193, which aims to “increase landowner hunting opportunity.” It would allow a landowner to hunt for deer, elk and black bear on their property during the general hunting season so long as the landowner is licensed and follows “all hunting laws and regulations pertaining to means of take and bag limits.” It also includes a provision allowing the Fish and Wildlife Commission to limit landowner hunting if wildlife populations are in “severe decline” due to environmental factors such as disease or drought.

The EQC’s vote does not seal the initiative’s fate, but it does mean that language noting the council’s opposition will be included on signature-gathering forms. In order to garner a spot on 2024 voter ballots, the sponsor will have to gather signatures from 5% of voters in one-third of Montana’s house districts by June 21, 2024.

Two proponents testified on behalf of I-193, arguing that they’re unable to hunt on land they own within the Flathead Indian Reservation. One proponent said he’s losing livestock forage to elk while the other argued private property like his should fall under state, not tribal, wildlife management.

Opponents countered that I-193 would open the door to unintended consequences, weaken relationships between the state and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and run counter to the “public trust doctrine” of wildlife management that has long guided Montana fish and game laws. They also argued that it would subject the state to legal challenges and noted that a similar proposal was rejected by state lawmakers in 2021.

I-193 sponsor Rick Schoening, a former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game warden and Polson police officer, told the committee that the current system whereby the CSKT prohibits landowners from hunting big game on their property infringes upon Montanans’ constitutionally enshrined right to harvest fish and game. He also said the practice was allowed on the Flathead Reservation until the 1950s and disputed the assertion some opponents made that it would allow landowners to hunt in limited-entry districts without first obtaining a tag. It wouldn’t serve as a “loophole” allowing any landowner to hunt trophy elk in the Missouri Breaks, he said, referencing the drawing system that caps the number of hunters permitted in some districts.

“Our neighboring states of North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming allow this,” he added. “It’s not like we’d be the only state.”

The second proponent was Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, who sponsored a failed bill in 2021 that sought to do something similar to I-193.

Read said he wasn’t advocating for a measure that would be “disharmonious” to other state laws. “But at the same time, I do believe that private property owners’ rights should be treated the same across the whole state,” he said.

Following a series of federal reforms, non-tribal members were permitted to own land inside the Flathead Indian Reservation, which has added a layer of complexity to natural resource issues such as water and wildlife management. The CSKT tribe has been slowly buying back the land that it lost under those reforms.

Opponents focused their remarks on two issues: whether the measure would lead the state toward privatizing wildlife and whether such a measure would survive a legal challenge from CSKT policymakers.

“This initiative would privatize and possibly commercialize our wildlife resources and upend the long-term management of those resources,” Kathleen Hadley of the Deer Lodge area told committee members. “Giving private landowners exclusive access to those resources, which this initiative would do, violates the public trust. It would likely provide great hunting opportunities to the very wealthy, who could buy up working ranches just for the hunting opportunities.”

Kevin Farron with the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers argued that the initiative as proposed was “so broad that we can’t even begin to estimate the problems that it will create.”

By way of example, Farron noted that “landowner” is not defined in the text, making it unclear if the hunting right could be exercised by overseas corporations and corporations with multiple owners. He also underscored that a “bag limit” — which limits the number of, say, elk, any one hunter can harvest in a given season — is different from quotas, which wildlife managers establish to achieve population objectives.

“This is ballot-box biology at its worst,” he said. “We ask that you do not support this.”

Those testifying on both sides of the issue cited portions of the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, which established for tribal members “the exclusive right of taking fish in all the streams running through or bordering” the reservation and provided for “the privilege of hunting … upon open and unclaimed land” for tribal members “in common with citizens of the territory.”

A handful of Republican lawmakers on the committee voiced support for the measure, saying that property owners like Schoening and Read should be able to hunt on property they pay taxes on and that wildlife management of those properties belongs under Montana’s jurisdiction. Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, said he’d like to give citizens of the state an opportunity to make their preferences known.

“I’d like the citizens to have an opportunity to weigh in on this,” he said.

Jim Keane, an EQC member and former lawmaker from Butte, said, “This one really puts the ‘um’ in dumb” in his committee remarks.

“I’m sure glad some of the representatives out there believe that the legal system needs more work,” he said. “This will do it for them.”

In addition to going before the EQC, I-193 was reviewed by the Montana Attorney General’s Office, which deemed it “legally sufficient” with a footnote flagging CSKT’s opposition to the measure in comments the tribe submitted to the AG’s office.

“The Attorney General notes these comments for the benefit of the reviewing interim committee,” Deputy Solicitor General Brent Mead wrote in his assessment of the measure’s legality. “Ultimately, the Attorney General’s legal sufficiency authority is limited and does not extend to these issues raised by the CSKT.”

In a conversation with Montana Free Press, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesperson Greg Lemon said Montana law prohibits the department from taking a position on ballot initiative proposals.

This article was originally published at http://www.montanafreepress.org.

 
 
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