On Thursday, February 22, hundreds of hunters and anglers gathered on the steps of the state State Capitol in Helena, Montana. Huddled around propane heaters amid subzero temperatures, we’d come to protest a slew of newly-introduced bills that threaten the state’s hard-won culture of fair-minded access to hunting, fishing, and public lands. If passed, the legislative measures would restrict entry to public lands, siphon money away from critical conservation programs, threaten the state’s cherished stream access law, and upend habitat protections enshrined in the Montana State Constitution.
As someone who recently moved to Montana in part because of its access to vast wild country, I’d decided to head to Helena from my home in the Bitterroot Valley to attend the rally in person. By the time I arrived at the capitol building, a crowd had already amassed. Hunters and anglers clapped, cheered, and chanted slogans in unison. It was five degrees below zero with a windchill of -20, but these people were on fire. The sound of their applause—muffled slightly by heavy mittens and gloves—resonated across the north lawn of the capitol. Then a series of impassioned local speakers took the podium to air their grievances with the “bad bills.”
Public land rallies have become something a fixture during Montana’s last five legislative sessions. The goal is simple: Send a clear message to Big Sky politicians that hunters and anglers won’t stand idly by when threatened by political schemes designed to divest them of public ground or chip away at hunting and fishing access.
Unfortunately, these types of schemes have become all too familiar in Montana, and other states in the West. Here’s why hunters and anglers in Montana—and beyond—should care.
Stream Access in Limbo
SB497 is a bill that threatened Montana’s famously robust stream access laws by restricting public easements through private property. In Montana, all streams and rivers with the capacity for recreational use are considered public property. They’re open to fishing and some forms of hunting, so long as recreators stay below the streambed’s high water mark.
These laws, which are widely regarded as some of the best stream access laws in the nation, were argued and litigated over for decades. They were enacted in 1985 through precedent established during hard-fought court cases. And they’ve been propped up over the years by the diligent work of local rod and gun clubs. They’re fragile but highly prized.
In the days since the public lands rally, SB497 and its proposed stream access amendment died a swift and public death. After an uprising that played out on social media, and in the email inboxes of state senators, it was killed by a 36-14 vote during its second reading on the Senate floor.
“This bill really poked the bear,” Marcus Strange, Director of State Policy and Government Affairs for the Montana Wildlife Federation told Field & Stream. “Lawmakers heard from thousands of hunters and anglers across Montana who rose up to protect our stream access laws. We hope this overwhelming response will remind lawmakers to rethink flouting our most cherished laws and rights to access public lands and water.”
An Untraditional Source of Conservation Funding May Be Cut
Another problematic bill, HB462 deals with money generated through the taxation of recreational marijuana, which was approved by a voter referendum in Montana in 2020. The voters who supported marijuana legalization back in 2020 had one stipulation: They wanted to see marijuana tax dollars funneled directly into public land management and other conservation-minded causes. More specifically, they wanted that money to go into a state-run program called Habitat Montana.
In the end, just 20 percent of the weed tax revenue was set aside for conservation. But that’s no small chunk of change. According to the Missoula Current, marijuana sales are projected to bring more than $50 million in tax revenue for the fiscal year of 2024—and as much as $57 million in 2025. That revenue has allowed Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks (FWP) to acquire new public lands and secure new conservation easements that open public access to private ground via the state’s block management program.
HB462 would remove those funds from Habitat Montana and earmark the money for law enforcement and substance abuse programs instead. “Despite overwhelming support for the program, Governor [Greg] Gianforte’s budget and HB462 are both attempting to wipe out this funding for Habitat Montana completely,” the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) said in a recent press release. “We can’t let this happen. Montana voters want marijuana tax revenue to be used for conservation and specifically, for Habitat Montana.”
Unlike the aforementioned SB497, which was tossed out last week, HB462 is still awaiting a committee hearing. Montana BHA is joined in its opposition to the bill by more than a dozen conservation groups including the Theodore Roosevelt Partnership, Ducks Unlimited, the Wild Sheep Foundation, and the Montana Wildlife Federation.
Equal Access to Elk is a Major Flashpoint
There are several worrying bills addressing elk management before the Montana state legislature right now, but the most troubling one is HB635. This bill guarantees five bull elk tags to absentee landowners with 2,500 acres or more by slashing 15 percent from the total pool of non-resident elk tags.
Opponents say HB635 conflicts with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation and puts Montana on the path of privatizing its public wildlife. “We don’t want to go down that road,” Kevin Farron, regional policy manager for Montana BHA, told Field & Stream. “When it comes to tag allocation, whenever you pick winners and losers based on wealth and landownership, that’s a form of privatization. You’re telling people they get a bigger piece of the public resource pie, just because they have more money.”
It’s a path that might sound familiar to anyone who lives in or hunts elk in New Mexico. Landowner preference and elk tag handouts have become so prevalent in the Land of Enchantment that landowners will regularly sell their elk tags in an unregulated, secondary market.
The thousands of dollars that change hands in exchange for these coveted landowner elk tags don’t go into the coffers of New Mexico Game and Fish, which means the money doesn’t benefit conservation. That’s the type of privatized, pay-to-play model that Farron and other Montana BHA members are resisting. “We fully appreciate the value that private landowners offer toward our public wildlife—and they deserve not just our thanks, but they deserve some compensation,” he said. “What we think is problematic is using our public wildlife as a bargaining chip as that incentive, reward, or compensation.”
An Embarrassment of Riches
On my way into Helena from my home in Stevensville that morning, I’d driven through a small swath of the wild country the public land rally-goers were so keen to protect. I passed timber-framed views of a frozen and snow-covered Blackfoot River as I drove out of Missoula. When I hit I-90, I began to parallel the trout-rich waters of the famous Clark Fork. I thought about a mule deer doe I’d taken with my bow on the public land surrounding a nearby pass—and a herd of bighorn sheep I’d seen last October after an afternoon of fly fishing with a friend along the banks of Rock Creek.
When I veered east onto Highway 12 to complete the last leg of the drive, I found myself in the shadow of the Boulder Mountains, surrounded by millions of acres of National Forest, before a white-knuckle drive up and down MacDonald Pass spit me out in Helena. The drive left me yearning for more time in the mountains and more miles logged in the “embarrassment of riches”—to borrow a phrase from longtime Field & Stream contributor Hal Herring—that we all call “public lands.”
All told, those riches amount to more than 30 million acres of state and federal land in Montana alone. They’re shared by all of us: Hunters and anglers, rock climbers and kayakers, and residents and non-residents. The current threats facing public land hunters and anglers in Montana aren’t blatant land grabs or attempts to transfer federal lands into state ownership. They’re subtler and more insidious than that.
Whether these threats will actually take hold remains to be seen. What I learned in Helena last month that simply can’t be denied is that hunters and anglers in Montana will never lie down and watch it happen.