Wolves, Bison and Beer: What to Watch for in the 2013 Montana Legislature

Beneath the specter of a sluggish economy, the Republican-controlled 63rd Montana Legislature convened Monday, Jan. 7, under the watchful eye of newly elected Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

The Exponent is covering many important issues in this week’s edition, but I’d like to highlight some issues that, though they may fly under the radar of the university’s steady “fund us!” drumbeat, will also impact students.

Public lands and wildlife policy

The 2011 session considered a record 110 bills related to fish, wildlife and land issues. At best, most of these were simply misguided, but some would have devastated central aspects of what it means to be a Montanan. For example, HB309 would have gutted public stream access, HB307 and SB400 would have prioritized outfitters and out-of-state hunters over average Montanans, and HB292 was a real humdinger that attacked our right to a clean environment by weakening the constitutional mandate. Fortunately, most died or were vetoed by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Already, 130 draft requests have been announced regarding fish and wildlife issues. Most of these won’t make it to law, but many would damage Montana’s wildlife management system, which has proven itself over decades to be one of the most effective in the country.

In this session, there are a host of contentious issues that will likely draw ink from legislators’ pens. Bison management, long a controversial topic in Montana, is likely to remain so.

Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, wants to manage all bison as livestock, while Rep. John Brenden, R-Scobey, would mandate that the Department of Livestock “immediately kill, capture, harass, quarantine and trap for slaughter all buffalo migrating into Montana.” Both of those are just as ridiculous as they sound and won’t likely become law.

A reasonable proposal that is likely to generate unfortunate opposition is the return of bison to American Indian reservations. In March 2012, the state relocated 64 Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Reservation.

Tribal leaders held a drum circle and described the deep spiritual significance of the animals that sustained their ancestors for generations. Relocating bison also makes sense from a biological perspective because a larger pool of animals is less likely to suffer a genetic bottleneck from disease, poaching, winter hardship.

Such a bottleneck is not an imagined calamity: In 1902, a mere 23 bison were the sole remaining survivors of the near extirpation of their species during the 19th century. These were literally the last wild bison in the entire United States, a country that had, a generation prior, held a millionfold more.

Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, has proposed a bill that, given her previous positions, will likely oppose such translocations. No text is available yet.

Wolves are also on the docket. Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, proposes a general hunting season and gives the Legislature control over how many wolves can be taken each year, season dates and structure, and even management units. His bill would also mandate a cap of 250 wolves for the entire state, with the probable consequence that any extras would be killed. FWP Wildlife Division Administrator Ken McDonald warns that the bill could lead to relisting wolves on the endangered species list (and thus a loss of state control over their management) and costly, time-consuming litigation.

Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, proposes a different bill that still allows for a general wolf hunting season, but allows FWP to make most of the decisions. FWP supports Flynn’s bill, and also — coincidentally — employs trained, educated biologists.

To mention just one more gem, Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, has proposed HB150, which would give every big game hunter one free wolf license. With a population of around 650 wolves and over 100,000 hunters in the state, this bill is as dumb as it sounds. Ironically, Edmunds contends in the text that this would not lead to relisting of wolves on the endangered species list, but it doesn’t take a degree in mathematics to see that such poor management could quickly crash the wolf population.

Montana microbreweries

During the 2011 Legislature, the Montana Brewers Association pushed to shift tap room operating hours back two hours. Admittedly, Montana does have a messy licensing structure for alcohol sales, but the main reason this bill died is that the Montana Tavern Association (MTA), representing the state’s bars, pushed back hard. That’s unfortunate, because it would have supported local businesses and helped consumers, while likely having a very small impact on bar patronage.

On Wednesday, Jan. 16, the MTA announced their support for a bill that would limit beer sold on the premises of a small brewery to only 10 percent of its annual production, Growler Fills, a Missoula-based beer blog, reports. Referred to as LC1322, it’s still in the drafting stage and is sponsored by Rep. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon.

Current Montana law allows breweries to serve a maximum of 48 ounces (three drinks) of their product to customers between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Despite these severe restrictions, sample rooms, as the law calls them, have become very popular across the state. Bozemanites need look no further than the Bozone, 406 or Madison River breweries.

Even though microbreweries fully comply with the law, MTA argues that their sample rooms were never supposed to become the inviting gathering places they have become; rather, they were supposed to remain small, bland, whitewashed rooms. (And they often were in the beginning.)

Many breweries currently sell between 85 and 100 percent of their beer on site. For the MTA to argue that these breweries could successfully complete an about-face and distribute 90 percent of their beer is simply disingenuous.

In a move that may or may not be related, Rep. Ellie Boldman Hill, D-Missoula, who was named one of Time Magazine’s “Rising Stars” in 2010, is working on a bill that would allow breweries to “stack” licenses, Growler Fills reports. If passed, her bill would allow breweries to purchase an all-beverage or beer and wine license, which is currently illegal for them.

The 10-percent bill, whether it is actively pursued or just drafted as a sort of warning, should be seen for what it is: an attempt to reign in the successes of the breweries and force them to compete on an uneven playing field with the bars and taverns.

If legislators are truly concerned with jobs and improving Montana’s economy, they would do well to focus on striking reasonable compromises with breweries that support our homegrown businesses, rather than try to knock them down a notch, as the MTA would like.

This summer, Montana overtook Oregon to become the state with the second most microbreweries per capita. The University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research recently estimated  that Montana breweries provide nearly 500 jobs and contribute $48.4 million in private sector sales and $1.5 million in government revenue.

We might not be able to drink our way out of the recession, but that won’t stop Montanans from trying. It is clearly more important than ever to foster a brewery-friendly business climate in our state.

Legislating insanity

During the 2011 session, the Legislature outdid itself, reaching cringeworthy levels of hilarity that occasionally drew embarrassing national attention. There’s no reason to think they’ve learned their lesson.

  1. Rep. Bob Wagner, R-Harrison, gave a horrifying interview on CNN, claiming he wasn’t sure that President Obama was born in the United States and that Montana can choose to ignore the 14th Amendment and redefine a “natural-born citizen.”
  2. In a logically impaired online blog post, Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel, compared Sandra Fluke, the former Georgetown Law student whom House Republicans blocked from testifying about birth control, to a bulldog who is paid stud fees. A stud fee is the price paid by the owner of a female animal to the owner of a male animal for the right to breed it. His post was every bit as offensive as it sounds.
  3. One bill sought to legalize hunting with hand-thrown spears (SB112), while another aimed to create a fully armed militia in every town (HB278). Oops, I mean jobs, jobs, jobs!
  4. A couple legislators wanted to declare that global warming is “beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana” (HB549), while others presumably hoped to mitigate global warming by opening up the Flathead Valley to nuclear power (HB326).