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Lawmakers should support Rural Montana Habitat Fund

by Ian Wargo
| January 4, 2023 12:00 AM

In a few short weeks, Lawmakers will have a golden opportunity to invest in Montana’s land and people by establishing the Montana Legacy Trust. The Legacy Trust is a proposal that’s been vetted by a bipartisan coalition of hunters, landowners, and outfitters with the goal of bringing Montanans together as partners, rather than the usual push to drive us further apart.

The Trust would create a permanent account, funded by an initial investment of $200 million of our historic surplus that could fund stewardship and restoration treatments to improve the health of the land and natural resources we all rely on. Relying solely on the interest generated by the trust, roughly $4-8 million per year, the funds would be used to enhance wildlife habitat on public or private lands, improve or develop water resources, mitigate impacts that hunting and outdoor recreation has on local infrastructure, or mitigate against the impacts of unnaturally intense wildfire and invasive species.

Why is this important? Because Montana needs to do a better job taking care of our habitat. While Montana has many tools to conserve public and private lands, we lack a funding mechanism to address the ailing health of our lands. As a hunter, I consider the restoration and improvement of our habitat to be at the core of solving Montana’s most complex wildlife issues, including elk management. Ailing public land forest health has led to the redistribution of elk and deer populations from public to private lands in much of the state and outright population reductions in the northwest.

I live in Northwest Montana. Up here we have witnessed dramatic changes in the health of our public lands habitat and a decline in the health of our forests. Large scale conifer encroachment has led to a reduction in the amount available forage and browse for our wildlife and has also set the stage for unnaturally hot and large wildfires to move across the landscape. If you couple that with the spread noxious weeds in much of the timber lands west of Kalispell we are witnessing obvious impacts on wildlife. Alongside predators, deteriorating habitat conditions have contributed to large declines and shifts in our regional elk populations.

Historically, Flathead National Forest alone supported 4,000 – 6,000 elk and had a sustainable elk harvest that ranged between 700 and 1,800 animals annually. The 2022 elk survey conducted by Fish Wildlife and Parks recorded a mere 2,246 elk across all Region 1 hunting districts.

As state populations grow, so does the demand for our wildlife. Growing demands coupled with declining public land elk populations has led to intense competition for what remains. So, I think it begs the question, should we continue down our current trajectory and just learn to get more competitive for what’s left? Or should we maybe step back and consider investing in our wild places so there’s more of a resource to go around?

But it’s not just about me. The Legacy Fund would be available for all lands and all people in every County of Montana. That includes helping farmers and ranchers in eastern and central Montana who are dealing with entirely different circumstances than what we’ve got going on in Northwest Montana as well as tribal governments looking to improve land conditions.

The Legacy Trust is all about flexibility. It’s designed to give local people - landowners, hunters, anglers, members of Tribes, and conservation districts - the tools and resources they need to utilize their local knowledge and get good work done for the benefit of local people and local wildlife.

Never forget that Montana is the “Last Best Place” so, let’s seize a historic opportunity and use a small portion of our budget surplus to invest in Montana’s wildlife and our way of life.

Ian Wargo is a hunter and Civil Engineer in Kalispell. He is a member of the Montana Elk Management Citizen Advisory Group.

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