Legislative bill would alter state park funding
Jennifer Cook and Stephanie Church take in the sights at Headwaters State Park near Three Forks Monday afternoon. A bill still alive in the legislature would change the way state parks are funded in a way that agency leaders would cost the department millions.

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Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is feeling the squeeze of a Legislature unhappy with its recent record.

In the first half of the session, FWP tracked 355 bills and testified on 114 of them. Seventy of those bills are still alive, at least half of which the department is opposed to, said agency spokesman Ron Aasheim.

"It's been a challenging session," Aasheim said. Bills have targeted "everything from land acquisition to wolves, bison, (FWP) commission authority, licensing issues."

And, Aasheim said, the army of outdoorsmen that usually comes out in droves to oppose bills that appear to compromise hunting and fishing seem to be less of a force this year.

"The presence of hunters, anglers, outdoor recreationists has not been as evident this year as it has been in past years," he said.

Bills still alive in the Legislature would, among other things, bar the department from acquiring land until 2015, change the way state parks are funded in a way that agency leaders say would cost them millions, and force the department to issue more hunting permits in certain districts.

"It looks like there is just a venting going on," said Jim Posewitz, a former FWP biologist and active conservationist in Helena. "For some reason, a conservationist and a conservative don't come close to having the same ideology."

However, Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, who chairs the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee, said lawmakers are not attacking the department, but only exercising their authority to govern state agencies. And while FWP has come out against many high-profile bills, the Legislature has also advanced a measure that would boost revenue from permits by hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

"I can assure you, we are not going after FWP," he said Monday. "We're just looking at the areas that need some correction and need some legislative change. ... The legislative responsibility lies with the House and the Senate. It does not lie with them."

Washburn pointed to a bill that increases the number of tags that would be issued in the Missouri River Breaks areas. Elk numbers were above the department's objective, he said, but FWP reduced the number of archery tags it issued.

"They didn't do what they were supposed to do," he said of FWP managers. "That was based on the ranchers, property owners, everybody and his brother, who came up on that bill. (FWP) just didn't accomplish what they were supposed to accomplish."

Lawmakers have also taken aim at land acquisitions by FWP following the department's purchase of the 27,616-acre Spotted Dog Ranch in Powell County, via moratoriums on buying land and other measures.

Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Point, argued in legislative testimony that FWP has more land that it can properly manage. He is sponsoring a bill that would prevent land acquisition until 2015 to give FWP "time to let management catch up with the purchases."

And a bill that has passed one committee would nix a $4 fee on car registration that goes to state parks in favor of a voluntary $25 fee.

But Posewitz said Republicans are basing their decisions more on ideology than current events.

"They don't care about what I have to say," he said. "This is a dogmatically driven crowd."

Glenn Hockett, with the Gallatin Wildlife Association, echoed the sentiment, saying that committees have been "deaf to our comments."

Back at the department, Aasheim said FWP's high profile invariably leads to loads of legislation every session.

"Fish and wildlife management are really unequalled" in the amount of interest it draws, said Aasheim. "In Montana, it's a big part of our lifestyle. It is a way of life here."

He called the second half of this session "crunch time."

"This is when not only we, but the people who are going to be affected by this legislation, need to step forward and let their opinions be known," he said.

Daniel Person can be reached at dperson@dailychronicle.com or 582-2665.


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