Tester addresses Sportsman’s Caucus

Great Falls Tribune

by Kimball Bennion

Only a day after Friday’s agreement between wildlife advocates and the federal government to again allow wolf hunting in Montana, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont, started the first meeting of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus Advisory Group on Saturday expecting to get an earful about wolves.

“Gray wolves have been a hot topic for a while, and we could spend the whole day talking about gray wolves in this room if you want,” Tester said to the 19 member panel and audience of more than 20 people. “I hope that’s not the case.”

It wasn’t, as uncertainty about budget cuts quickly emerged as the reigning topic, particularly cuts to the federal Land Water Conservation Fund.

The advisory panel was picked by Tester’s office to give him input for his role as the caucus’ chairman. The panel is made up of hunters, landowners and conservation activists from across the state. Funding for the Land Water Conservation Fund was quickly brought up when Tester opened the discussion to the panel.

The fund, which provides matching federal grants to state and local governments for the development of public recreational areas, is the “single most effective statute for providing access” to hunting and fishing enthusiasts, said panel member Pat Smith, a lawyer from the Flat-head Indian Reservation who specializes in Native American law.

When asked if that funding would be protected as federal lawmakers look at making cuts to the national budget, Tester could only reply that he didn’t know.

“If the Land Water Conservation Fund is something that we feel passionate about … then we need to push for those things,” he said.

But it was hard for Tester, who vowed to bring up the funding issues to the caucus, to make any promises beyond communicating the advisory panel’s concerns.

“All of it is going to be under the microscope,” Tester said of federal spending. “A lot of these funds will be taking a shave, and I think they’ll be taking a shave whether I like them or not.”

Many members of the panel seemed concerned that trimming federal funding aimed at protecting public land would prove detrimental to Montana’s economy, which gains significant revenue from tourism and outdoor recreation, especially in a political climate panel member Ryan Busse described as hostile toward government spending and intervention.

“Good government, wise government and government actions are necessary for all these things,” he said.

In fact, some panelists said they believe the federal government should do more to help Montana manage access to public lands.

“We’ve never been satisfied with the approach the federal government takes on this,” said panel member John Gibson of Billings, president of the Public Land and Water Access Association. “We don’t think that they’re using the tools available to them.”

Better access means better business for Montana, said Randy Newberg, a Bozeman hunter who hosts the cable television show “On Your Own Adventures” on the Sportsman Channel.

“Hunting and fishing drive this economy,” Newberg said. “I guess to use a political slogan, it’s the access, stupid.”

However, a lackluster economy coupled with increasing gas prices won’t make hunting and fishing any easier, no matter how much access the government provides, said Steve Vinnedge of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Great Falls office.

Fewer youth and young families are hunting and fishing, Vinnedge said.

“It isn’t a 30-year-old father taking out an 11-year-old boy, it’s a grandfather,“ Vinnedge said. “These parents can’t afford, with the current economy, to take them there.”

The panel wasn’t able to escape the predator in the room, though, as the newly minted deal between Montana and the federal government to remove wolves from the endangered species list came up as a last-minute topic.

“I’d hate to go through an hour and a half of this without talking about wolves,” said Ben Lamb of the Montana Wildlife Federation.

Tester didn’t have much to say about the recent deal except that he would keep pushing for the settlement while awaiting a final decision from Missoula federal Judge Don Molloy, who last year ruled that wolves in Montana and Idaho belonged on the endangered species. “We will keep pushing the settlement,” Tester said. “There’s too many questions that haven’t been answered yet.”