Conservation licenses required for fishing access, wildlife management areas in Montana

As the state plans an educational period before getting into enforcement, a first violation of the new law carries only a warning

By: - July 5, 2023 4:00 am
Montana Lone Tree fishing access site

The Missouri River just south of the Lone Tree fishing access site between Wolf Creek and Craig. (Blair Miller/Daily Montanan)

Starting Saturday, people using Montana fishing access sites and wildlife management areas who don’t already have a conservation license with their fishing or hunting license are supposed to buy one under a new law passed this legislative session.

The change made by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte means that people who are using a Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks fishing access site only to float the river, hike, birdwatch or picnic, for instance, will have to purchase a conservation license, which costs $8 for most residents. The license is $4 for Montana children ages 12 to 17, as well as for Montanans ages 62 and up. Nonresident licenses are $10.

But anyone out at those public lands this weekend for the holidays was unlikely to face any ramifications yet if they didn’t have one, as the state plans an educational period before getting into enforcement. A first violation carries only a warning.

During the legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 521, which made the changes to law, with fairly heavy bipartisan support in the end despite some initial discomfort with the bill.

What will change under Montana’s new conservation license bill?

The changes under the bill essentially made most public land users require conservation permits by combining conservation licenses and state lands recreational use permits – the latter of which send money to Montana schools and other institutions. The bill also implemented a cost-sharing agreement between Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and the Department of Natural Resources. However, trappers, commercial recreators, outfitters and people running special events on state trust land will still need to buy the Special Recreation Use License.

Montana hunters and fishermen and women have long had to purchase a conservation license along with their hunting and fishing licenses to hunt or fish on state lands. The state sold 537,852 of those conservation licenses in the 2022 fiscal year, according to a fiscal analysis for HB 521.

But people who do not hunt or fish, but use state lands for recreation like overnight horseback riding, trapping, mineral exploration and firewood collection on Department of Natural Resources state trust lands were supposed to be buying the $10 special recreational use permits to do so.

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However, only 21,695 of them were purchased in FY 2022, which lawmakers, officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and Department of Natural Resources, and other groups who testified during the hearings on the bill said was partially a product of people being unaware they even needed to buy such a license.

“People don’t really get it because they don’t realize they need it. Enforcement is not the greatest, and there is a lack of knowledge on some people’s part,” said Rep. Denley Loge, R-St.Regis, told the Senate Fish and Game Committee in April during a hearing on the bill.

The new conservation license effort has been years in the works, Loge and department officials said during hearings on the bill this winter and spring, as a way to try to bring in extra money to keep up and maintain primarily the fishing access sites, which see broad use, especially during the summer.

Loge and department officials said at least 40% of the users of the fishing access sites are not using them for fishing purposes despite fees from hunters and fishermen and women funding the sites – most of which are state-owned, but some of which the state rents from private property owners.

In advocating for the bill during the session, they said adding the small yearly fee would bring in more money for people who use the sites but do not pay for them. That money would lead to better upkeep of facilities, trash collection and parking lots, and perhaps keep hunting and fishing license fees at their current costs moving into the future, the proponents said. They also said it would give local law enforcement and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks a way to enforce against littering and parties at Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks fishing access sites.

In FY 2022, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks paid the Department of Natural Resources $2 from every conservation license, for a total of about $1.075 million. The bill now requires FWP to pay the Department of Natural Resources $3.50 per conservation license, which the bill’s fiscal analysis said would bring in an additional roughly $660,000 to the department. Several lobbyists and lawmakers said they believed that number would be even higher because officials cannot yet estimate how many people are using the sites for things aside from fishing.

The bill received support from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Director Dustin Temple, Department of Natural Resources officials, and lobbyists for outdoor recreational groups like Trout Unlimited, the Montana Wildlife Federation, Wild Montana, the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana Audubon, Montana Conservation Voters, and the Montana Sportsman’s Alliance – most of whom said it would allow everyone using the sites to pay for the upkeep and any rising rent costs. The bill received almost no opposition during committee hearings.

Loge and officials with the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and the Department of Natural Resources said people putting in rafts or floats from state parks, federal land, or private land – and taking out on those types of lands – would not have to buy such a license, which allayed some concerns from lawmakers. Other lawmakers said they were concerned that family and friends who do not hunt and fish but want to come float a river for a day would all have to buy the licenses individually – costing up to hundreds of dollars depending on the size of the group and the age of the participants.

Lawmakers said they understood the concerns, and Temple and other officials said there would likely be a years-long education and outreach effort to tell Montanans and people coming from out of state that the license would be required.

How would enforcement of the new law work?

Temple said enforcement would work much in a way game wardens check for licenses of hunters and fishermen when they come across them in the field.

A first violation would be a warning; a second offense would lead to a fine of twice the cost of a conservation license ($16 for a Montana adult); and a third offense could lead to a fine of between $50 and $500 – something officials said would only be enforced on “habitual offenders.”

The bill received yes votes from 80 of 100 House lawmakers on its third reading after narrowly passing the House Appropriations Committee in a 12-11 vote. It easily cleared Senate Fish and Game before nearly getting killed on second reading in the Senate, where it moved on to Finance and Claims after a 26-24 vote.

But after the Finance and Claims hearing, and an 18-1 vote in favor to move the measure out of the committee, the Senate passed the bill to Gianforte’s desk in a 39-10 bipartisan vote – with most of the votes against coming from Republicans.

Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks started its outreach campaign earlier this week, which has led to some negative comments on the department’s social media pages, as some people said they were caught off guard by the changes and don’t feel they should have to pay a fee for a picnic at a public fishing access site. The Helena Independent Record published multiple stories about the bill this session.

Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Director Temple said in a statement this week that having access to the fishing access sites and wildlife management areas “for a small annual fee is a tremendous bargain.”

“By requiring an annual conservation license for everyone 12 and older who uses these sits, we’re ensuring the cost of maintenance is shared by all users, not just hunters, anglers, and trappers,” Temple said.

Department of Natural Resources Director Amanda Kaster said the combined conservation and State Lands Recreational Use License would allow residents and nonresidents who use state-managed lands “to do their part to support the education of Montana’s students.”

The licenses can be bought online, in the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks app, or at an Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks office.

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter for The Daily Montanan based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.