On the heels of opening weekend of general hunting season, Governor Steve Bullock sued Attorney General Tim Fox in the Montana Supreme Court asking the high court to overturn an attorney general opinion that blocks closure on pending conservation easement projects with Montana landowners.
“Attorney General Tim Fox’s opinion is wrong on the law and wrong for Montana’s tradition of conservation and public access,” said Governor Bullock. “Montanans expect the Attorney General not to utilize the opinion powers for political purposes. I won’t stand by while Attorney General Fox jeopardizes the rights of private property owners to do what they choose with their ranchland, and sportsmen and sportswomen across our state who rely on the Habitat Montana program.”
A decision by the Court will affect procedures for all future conservation easements in the Habitat Montana program. Three Habitat Montana projects face imminent deadlines, or they will expire.
“These three projects alone would protect over 18,000 acres of pristine wildlife habitat for future generations and guarantee public access to these private properties,” Governor Bullock said. “We could close these deals and help these private property owners tomorrow, except for the Attorney General’s opinion. It adds more politics, uncertainty, and bureaucracy that the law just doesn’t require.”
Montana law says that these projects have all the approvals they require after a vote by the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
The opinion, issued last week, says that conservation easement deals between landowners and FWP must be approved by the Land Board. For years, the Land Board endorsed these easements. Beginning in 2017, however, Land Board members began to reject or indefinitely postpone conservation easement projects. Governor Bullock ordered a review of the Land Board’s authority after a March meeting in which the Board indefinitely delayed the Horse Creek Conservation Easement.
A legislator opposed to the Horse Creek project requested the Attorney General opinion. It was issued October 15 and turns past practice before the Land Board into a new legal requirement for conservation easements.
Bullock stressed the effects Land Board politics have had on private property owners. “Montana landowners have spent years working in good faith trying to complete these deals, only to see Land Board members pull the rug out from under them at the last minute,” Bullock said. “For many, this is the most important financial decision they will make.”
- The conservation easements are part of the Habitat Montana program, which uses fees from hunting licenses to promote wildlife conservation and public access. It is administered by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP).
- There are three pending conservation easements that have been approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission and that must be closed before the end of this year or they will expire. One must be completed by the end of November.
- The three pending deals will protect over 18,000 acres across Montana, opening them up for hunting.
- A decision by the Supreme Court would affect all future FWP conservation easements, which historically have protected hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat for hunting and fishing access.
- The Attorney General’s opinion relies on an incorrect reading of Montana law, conflating land purchases with conservation easements to impose the Land Board requirement on FWP easements.
- Governor Bullock’s suit provides new documents showing that FWP, as far back as the mid-80s, finalized conservation easements without the Land Board. The opinion claims, falsely, that FWP had always gone to the Board. The documents are attached.
The Governor’s Petition to the Supreme Court is attached.