There were plenty of important outdoor news stories in Montana during 2018. Here are my reflections on a few which seemed most significant.
Chronic wasting disease became what will likely be a permanent reality for Montana hunters. After it’s discovery, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks took steps to curb the spread of the disease, and pressed Wyoming to close the elk feeding grounds near Jackson Hole, probably a hot zone for the disease.
It took a couple decades for CWD to spread north across Wyoming, and we’ll likely see a similar march across Montana. Hunters have no choice but to learn to be more careful handling and butchering big game. Shipping meat samples for lab testing before eating may soon be just another step — like applying for tags or sighting a rifle — in the process of filling Montana freezers.
Passage of the Farm Bill earlier this month was an important step for a state with an economy as closely tied to agriculture as Montana. For hunters and anglers, the bill included funding for important access and conservation measures. Maybe the most important was the boost in funding for the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, after a decade of decline. The bill boosts funding for 3 million acres of new CRP lands. I’d like to see more, but it’s a step in the right direction.
While the Farm Bill was a victory, the continued failure of Congress to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, legislation that has bipartisan support, is shameful. Politics in the U.S. Senate seems to have bottled up the legislation, which survives only on life support as this is written.
Extreme weather left its mark in 2018. Billings imitated the Flathead, topping its all-time record for snowfall. An April 23 storm dropped one-tenth of an inch, besting the old record of 103.5 inches of snow for a season.
That was nothing compared to snowpack. April SNOTEL measurements were well above average in every river basin in the state: the Flathead was at 142 percent of the long-term average, while the Upper Yellowstone topped Montana with 160 percent. Gov. Steve Bullock declared a statewide flooding emergency in May, but fortunately, summer came on late and peak runoff wasn’t as high as feared.
Polls showed Montanans, regardless of party, support public land. While a healthy debate on land management continues, the desire to sell off or transfer public lands — either from the feds to states, or states to private hands — remains popular only with fringe groups, while keeping it public maintains broad bipartisan support. Hopefully, some of those elected officials who share the views of those fringe groups will begin to pay better attention to their constituents.
Forest Service ranger Alex Sienkiewicz stuck his neck out for the public and the law, trying to protect the right to access land in the Crazy Mountains. For doing the right thing, he was rewarded with a reassignment to a desk job. After a review of complaints leveled against him, Sienkiewicz was returned to his job. The case is a reminder that the battle for public access to public land isn’t going away. If you’re a hunter or angler or any other lover of playing outdoors, it’s time to gird for long-term battle.
National stories don’t always reach back to the Treasure State, but the epic fall of former Montana congressman and erstwhile Whitefish resident Ryan Zinke as interior secretary certainly did. Some took hope from Zinke’s appointment and his pledge to be a Roosevelt Republican on conservation issues. But while he tried to claim the mantle of one of our greatest conservationist/hunter presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, Zinke’s term will largely be remembered for a series of ethics scandals, and the pomposity of his demand the interior secretary’s flag be raised above the building whenever he was in the office.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.