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Habitat Montana restored through teamwork

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News from the Montana Sporting Coalition

Thirty years ago, the Montana Legislature passed a bill to establish a one-of-a-kind program to conserve Montana’s best wildlife habitat. Habitat Montana, as it is known, has done just that. With over 600,000 acres of conservation easements and fee-title lands owned by the people of Montana, the program has helped conserve areas vital for the continued abundance of elk, deer and hundreds of other species that need a place to call home during the stressful winter months as well as year round. 

The program is wildly popular not only with hunters and anglers. Snowmobilers, mountain bikers, hikers, birders and wildlife enthusiasts of all stripes win when the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has the ability to conserve critical wildlife habitat and place it in the public domain. Livestock producers graze on these lands in order to help restore and manage feed for all species. Small-scale stewardship forestry occurs to improve habitat as well as produce saleable logs and forest products. 

In recent years, however, Habitat Montana had become a wedge between legislators who had concerns over how the funds had been spent and the hunters and anglers who provide the funding to implement the program. During the 2015 legislative session, a bill that normally would have given the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks the authority to spend their own money was written to effectively end the program. That bill passed the House of the Representatives, only to meet a wall of resistance from Montanans who opposed the effort in the Senate.

While some of the authority was restored, a rider was placed on the funding so that FWP could not spend Habitat Montana funds on purchasing new lands, regardless of how important they were for wildlife or for increasing access to landlocked public lands. 

Nervous and concerned about the past actions by the Legislature, our organizations worked together to ensure legislators saw the value in restoring the full authority to the program.  Collectively, we worked to educate legislators about our shared position, listen to their concerns about past purchases, and find common ground on a path forward. Some attempts were made that would have foolishly impacted the program, but ultimately a majority of legislators saw the value in ensuring Montana’s signature habitat conservation and access program was kept whole. And we held together despite some attempts by lawmakers to push divisive measures that would have divided the sporting community. 

With the passage of House Bill 5, Habitat Montana has been fully restored to do the work that Montanans expect it to do: conserve working farms and ranches through conservation and access easements, purchase vital wildlife habitat to ensure abundant wildlife populations, and help provide the core-competency for Montana’s $650 million outdoor economy.  

Kudos to the Legislature for restoring this important conservation program. We look forward to showing our elected officials that this trust is not misplaced, and that the program will be used effectively to ensure our outdoor heritage remains strong. 

The Montana Sporting Coalition is made up of the Montana Wildlife Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, Montana Trout Unlimited, Montana Bowhunters Association, Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, The Wildlife Society, Montana Sportsmen Alliance and the Mule Deer Foundation. 

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