Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend

Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend

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High numbers of elk gathering in private pastures of southwest Montana have created problem hunting incidents that one legislator hopes to improve with higher penalties that he says cut both ways.

On Tuesday, Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, presented to the House Fish and Wildlife committee a bill that would increase the penalties related to four hunting laws, namely those dealing with herding wildlife and hunting from a road or vehicle.

First and foremost, the bill strengthens Montana’s hunter harassment law by increasing the fine to $500 for the first offense and by adding the loss of any hunting or fishing license for two years for a second offense.

“If an agent of a landowner or outfitter is bothering someone who is legally hunting, this applies to them,” Flynn said.

Another law that has an initial fine and a stepped-up penalty for second offense is unlawful use of a vehicle while hunting.

Rep. Jacobson, D-Great Falls, noticed that the bill’s modified wording allowed landowners to herd animals, but Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Chief Warden Jim Kropp said the exception applied only to landowners who were trying to haze wildlife off their property to avoid game damage.

Flynn proposed that violation of two other statutes would cause people to lose their license on the first offense: shooting from a vehicle without a handicapped license and unlawful hunting from public roads, including gravel roads.

Flynn cited one of the recent situations near Townsend where a large number of hunters had shot from the road into a herd of elk.

“These changes deal with those black-and-white situations,” Flynn said. “This bill doesn’t solve everything, but it’s a good first step.”

Seven people stepped up to testify in favor of the bill, including representatives of the Montana Wildlife Federation, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Montana Audubon. They cited the need for sportsmen to have better ethics.

Darrell Harris of the Prickly Pear Sportsmen’s Association warned that there should also be increased penalties for the use of cellphones, walkie-talkies and drones.

“Hunters couldn’t congregate without the use of these,” Harris said.

Kropp pointed out that the biggest change to the law regulating the unlawful use of a vehicle was the addition of one word: “impede.”

“It addresses the problem whereby landowner agents are accused of patrolling property and keeping animals within private land and not letting them cross to where hunters can hunt them,” Kropp said. “The way the law is written without that word, other than having discussions with the agents of landowners, there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

But one sportsman stepped forward to say that the bill didn’t go far enough to hold landowners accountable.

Lawrence Sickerson told the story of hunting in Wheatland County in 2010 with his 10-year-old son.

They’d left their truck to pursue some antelope when a landowner drove across the field, stopped in front of them and pointed a rifle at Sickerson.

They asked if he knew where he was and Sickerson said he pulled out his GPS to prove he was legal.

“They told me they were happy that they had ruined our hunt. I filed charges and they were fined just $135,” Sickerson said. “Commercial interests, landowners and outfitters and guides – there needs to be more teeth in this bill to hold them accountable. They have a vested interest through financial agreements to bully and buffalo sportsmen away from these critters. It’s happening, and there needs to be something done about it.”

Flynn said the FWP commission already dealt with cellphones and drones, but he anticipated an additional drone bill would be introduced.

“This isn’t the only answer, but it’s a great step,” Flynn said.

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Laura Lundquist can be reached at llundquist@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638.

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