Despite increasing population, Feds want wolverine on endangered list

Photo courtesy Marie Hale/Flickr

Photo courtesy Marie Hale/Flickr

Montana wildlife officials last week expressed their formal opposition to a proposal from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the wolverine on the Endangered Species List.

The Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks filed the letter by the end of the proposal’s public comment period last Monday.

USFWS says global climate change will significantly reduce wolverine habitat over the next century and protecting the species now will bolster the population for an expected future decline.

“We maintain that we’ve had an expanding population, even with climatic conditions that are maybe similar to what they’re predicting,” said Montana FWP Spokesman Ron Aasheim. “Our feeling is that the best available science doesn’t indicate that there’s a need to list the wolverine.”

“The wolverine is a bit unusual in the case that the current status is improving,” said USFWS Biologist Shawn Sartorius, who heads the agency’s wolverine research, but added ultimately, under the Endangered Species Act, it’s future threats that count.

The main impact Sartorius cites for the listing is the reduction of mountain snowpack levels. Wolverines use snow to build dens and raise their young. He said those impacts are being felt now.

USFWS says the reason wolverine populations continue to expand now is they are still filling the available habitat after being nearly wiped-out in the 20th Century “due to broad-scale predator trapping and poisoning programs.” Sartorius said listing the animal would give the agency more tools to help grow the population as much as possible.

“We have some potential to get wolverines into some of those places that they used to occur in to help expand their range before the full impact of climate change occurs,” Sartorius said.

Now that the public comment period is finished, USFWS will looking over their research and the comments to make their decision on listing the wolverine. Sartorius said a ruling will be made in February of 2014.

In the meantime, an injunction has been placed on trapping wolverines in Montana, which FWP also opposes. That prohibition would continue if the species is listed.

FWP allowed trappers to take five total wolverines per year. USFWS roughly estimates between 250 and 300 wolverines currently live in the lower 48 states.

Governor to kick off economic development initiative with roundtable discussions

Gov. Steve Bullock (center) unveils the new Main Street Montana Project Monday with D.A. Davidson & Co. CEO Bill Johnstone (left) and Washington Companies CEO Larry Simkins (right)

Gov. Steve Bullock (center) unveils the new Main Street Montana Project Monday with D.A. Davidson & Co. CEO Bill Johnstone (left) and Washington Companies CEO Larry Simkins (right)

Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont., on Monday announced a new economic development initiative aimed at developing a blueprint for job creation based upon the suggestions of Montana businesses.

“Montanans have shown that they’re national leaders in business, ingenuity and hard work,” Bullock said. “I think those qualities really helped us come out of the recession stronger than most states.”

Bullock wants to draw on the experiences of business owners to create a plan to tackle challenges faced by those companies and identify steps to attract and retain new businesses. The governor said it would be a bottom-up approach. He was joined at the press conference unveiling the initiative by its two co-chairs, CEO of The Washington Companies Larry Simkins and CEO of D.A. Davidson & Company Bill Johnstone.The project will start with a series of roundtable discussions:

  • Billings–Tuesday, May 28th, 2:00 PM at the Broadway Downtown Center, 2804 3rd Ave. N.
  • Missoula–Tuesday, June 4th, 2:00 PM at the UM University Center, 3rd Floor Meeting Room Foyer and Room 330-123
  • Great Falls–Wednesday, June 12th, 2:00 PM at the Great Falls Civic Center, Missouri Room
  • Miles City–Wednesday, June 19th, 2:00 PM at Miles Community College, Room 106-107
  • Bozeman–Tuesday, June 25th, 2:00 PM at the MSU Strand Union, Ballroom A

“Everything is on the table,” Simkins said. “The idea is we want to gather as many facts as we can before we sit down and start talking about what’s necessary for economic development.”

Simkins said the project hopes to publish a report outlining specific metrics to improve the state’s business climate sometime in early 2014.

Learn more about the Main Street Montana Project on their website.

FWP mulls more aggressive wolf hunting season


State wildlife officials have given initial approval to new, more aggressive wolf hunting rules for this year’s hunting season. The Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission is accepting public comment before taking a final vote on the proposal.

The new rules extend the wolf hunting season, allows more wolves to be taken by individuals and allows trappers to use bait. The proposed rules are drawing fresh criticism from wolf advocates.

Fish Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim says hunters and trappers together did take more wolves this last hunting season than the year before—a total of 225 wolves killed. But he says FWP still thinks the species can handle a more aggressive hunt.

“We’ve still got more wolves than what we would consider in balance with the rest of the wildlife out there and with landowner tolerance. So we’re still thinking we need to reduce numbers below where they are,” Aasheim said.

The rules adopted by the FWP Commission extend the wolf hunting season by a month–out to six and a half months. Individuals would be able to take up to five wolves—up from three last hunting season, through any combination of hunting or trapping.

Some conservation organizations are criticizing the new plan as going too far. Greater Yellowstone Coalition Wildlife Program Manager Chris Colligan says the GYC has supported overall Montana wolf hunting rules in the past as being a preferred model compared with Idaho and Wyoming rules. He says his organization does not feel that way about these new guidelines. Colligan says the national public analyzes wolf management in the West with a high level of scrutiny.

“And with all of the attention last year on wolf management we feel this is going to give Montana a black eye, especially with the non-hunting public,” Colligan said.

Yellowstone National Park officials also would like FWP to change the overall wolf quota in the hunting district just outside the park. That total proposed quota is seven wolves right now, Yellowstone would like that lowered due the interest of tourists in more wolves and some recent high-profile wolf killings outside the park.

FWP says they will take that into consideration.

Other groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation praise the new proposed rules. Communications Director Mark Holyoak says the rules take into account the wishes of landowners and sportsmen.

“There is a proper place for wolves, just as there is for ungulates and other predators but we need to remember that we as humans live on the same landscape as well,” Holyoak said.

“Landowners in Montana have been great about accommodating wildlife and some of the impacts and it’s our job to do what we can to mitigate those problems,” Aasheim said.

The Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission will take a final vote on the new wolf season rules during their meeting in July.

FWP predicts there were more than 600 Wolves living in the state as of the end of last year.

See the new proposed wolf hunting rules here.

Why a Helena artist is dying his money blue–and giving it away

Helena artist Tim Holmes has dyed multiple denominations of U.S. bills blue to spread a message of conservation.

Tim Holmes has dyed multiple denominations of U.S. bills blue to spread a message of conservation.

Artist Tim Holmes has been working as a professional artist since the 1970s, and he’s spent much of that time as a sculptor. He’s working in a different medium now, however–money.

Holmes is dying thousands of dollars of his own money blue and giving it away. He stamps each bill with the sentence “Based on the value of a clean world!”

Each bill also directs its recipient to the website bluebills.us

He hopes spreading the bills will prompt discussions about environmentalism.

Holmes will be giving away his blue bills, while supplies last, at his Helena studio at 446 N. Hoback Street at 9 AM on Saturday.

Tim Holmes holds up one of his blue dollar bills Thursday.

Tim Holmes holds up one of his blue dollar bills Thursday.

What happens now with the Flathead Water Compact?

Credit: Flickr,  Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ

Credit: Flickr, Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are now mulling their options after the 2013 Montana Legislature failed to pass the Flathead Water Rights Compact; but CSKT officials are hopeful the agreement can be passed by the 2015 Legislature.

The Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, made up of nine appointed members, has been working with the CSKT on the Flathead Water Compact for 12 years. The commission crafts agreements with the tribes to settle water disputes between the general public and tribes, who hold senior water rights guaranteed in treaties signed in the 1800s. Flathead is the last compact left for the state to pass with a tribe, and it’s the only one not to have passed through the Montana Legislature.

The House Judiciary Committee tabled the bill after its March hearing. Lawmakers heard long testimony from supporters and opponents of the compact. Some felt more time needed to be taken to evaluate the concerns of those opposed, who say the compact will be taking the water rights of non-tribal irrigators.

“Well, the Legislature hasn’t been working on it for twelve years,” said Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls. “It was dropped on our lap at the end of February and it’s a 1200-page document.”

Fielder said she wanted to understand a document as complex as the compact before voting on it. Fielder supports the House Judiciary Committee tabling the bill and hopes the Legislature will be able to take the next two years to address concerns.

CSKT Communications Director Rob McDonald says negotiations on the compact are finished.

“They’re hard-forged agreements that took a lot of hard work,” McDonald said. “(The negotiations) were aired out in the public very intensely for the last four years.”

Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a bill from Sen. Verdell Jackson which would have attempted to re-open negotiations between the state and CSKT. Water Rights Compact Commission member Rep. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, said he agrees with that veto.

“You can ask the tribes to come back and it’s entirely up to them whether they do or not,” Salomon said. “We can’t force anyone to renegotiate like some people want.”
In Bullock’s veto message, he directs the Compact Commission to draft a report addressing the concerns of Flathead Water Compact opponents. CSKT hopes the legislature decides to adopt the compact in 2015, otherwise the tribes have the option of taking their disputes to court. The state estimates as many as 10-thousand claims may be filed if that happens.

Bullock vetoes draw GOP criticism

Governor Steve Bullock has finished working through bills from the 2013 Legislative Session. Bullock signed 393 bills this session.

But Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce says he vetoed 71.  

In addition, check out this report from Matt Gouras of the Associated Press:

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A legislative session that began with promises of compromise ended with a whole bunch of vetoes from Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday — and plenty of criticism from Republicans who argued the governor was undermining bipartisan efforts.

Bullock let 10 low-profile measures become law without his signature on Tuesday, the last of the bills sitting on his desk from the session that adjourned late last month. A day earlier he was much more active when he issued 27 vetoes to bring his total to 71 for the session — just shy of Brian Schweitzer’s record of 78 from two years ago.

Republicans — including members of a coalition that helped advance the session’s biggest bills — criticized the governor’s moves as overly partisan. The lawmakers had entered the session hopeful of improved relations after mostly coming up short in battles with former Gov. Brian Schwietzer.

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, addresses the House Taxation Committee. He is proposing legislation to change Montana's income, property and business equipment taxes. (Photo by Amy R. Sisk. Community News Service. University of Montana.)

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, addresses the House Taxation Committee. (Photo by Amy R. Sisk. Community News Service. University of Montana.)

“I wish the governor had taken a different tact. It appears he took an aggressive tact just like Brian Schweitzer,” said Republican state Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, a Kalispell farmer. “It hurts. Truthfully hurts. At least we knew with Schweitzer that he didn’t respect us. And while there was never a quid pro quo with this governor, we were working with him to deliver good responsible legislation and now when it was his turn to do the right thing for the right reasons it appears he took a very partisan attitude.

Tutvedt, who is among a dissident GOP group billing itself the “responsible Republicans,” noted that Bullock took out many measures from that group such as plans to improve agricultural research and to help oil-boom towns deal with overloaded infrastructure.

Tutvedt said those Republicans who had been willing to work with Democrats will be much more cautious next session.

“I had high hopes for Gov. Bullock,” Tutvedt said. “We are going to have to take a more guarded view next time.”

Bullock argued in veto messages sent to the lawmakers that he needed to save money with the vetoes to get closer to his targeted surplus of $300 million, compared to the less than $200 million left by lawmakers. He also argued the GOP tax measures disproportionately helped the wealthy.

The governor was planning a news conference for later Tuesday.

Republican leaders bemoaned the loss of some of their priorities, including income tax cuts that included a plan for simplification that reduced rates and got rid of most tax credits.

Representative Mark Blasdel (R-Somers)

Representative Mark Blasdel (R-Somers)

Republican House Speaker Mark Blasdel criticized the governor for vetoing a bill that would have exempted businesses from paying equipment tax on pollution control equipment mandated by the federal government. Yet he noted the governor signed money-spending measures, such as those to fix the state’s pension system and give state employees a pay raise.

“I think a lot of his actions show that his interest has been to take care of state government and not to take a look at addressing concerns of everyday citizens,” Blasdel said.

Blasdel commended Bullock for improving the tone in Helena, compared to when Schweitzer was torching Republican bills with a hot-iron VETO brand. The results, however, were the same, Blasdel said.

“I still think his vetoes show his ideology and his political stances. I think the tone changed, but his ideology and stances didn’t,” said Blasdel, a Somers restaurant owner.

Lawmakers will be polled on many of the measures for a veto override, which requires a supermajority of lawmakers and would require unlikely Democratic support. Such veto overrides are rare.

In total for the session, the governor received 490 bills. He signed 387 of them, vetoed 71, used line-item veto authority on three spending bills and let another 28 become law without his signature.

Conservative Republican leaders — who rarely supported any of the budget bills that were largely crafted by Democrats and some Republicans — bashed the governor. Estimates show spending goes up about 13 percent over the next two years under the plan becoming law.

“His vetoes show that he just wants the status quo. He wants the establishment running supreme over taxpayers,” Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich of Bozeman said.

What NorthWestern’s major infrastructure upgrade project means for utility rates


A worker contracted by NorthWestern Energy replaces underground electric cables in Helena

A worker contracted by NorthWestern Energy replaces underground electric cables in Helena

NorthWestern Energy is rolling out the major phase of a seven-year, $375 million infrastructure upgrade project this year, and it has already led to an increase in some utility rates with more potentially on the way.

NorthWestern’s Distribution System Infrastructure Project (DSIP) started in 2011, but the first two years were mostly preparatory. This year, NorthWestern employees and contract crews will be working across the state replacing electric poles and underground gas and electric lines, installing new meters and other technologies, and trimming lots of trees. $66 million will be spent on the project this year alone.

“This is the work that we believe is needed to be done to avoid potentially greater costs down the road,” said NorthWestern CEO Bob Rowe. Much of the infrastructure being replaced was installed in the 1970s and has reached the end of it’s useful life. Rowe said the company is trying to get ahead of problems which would lead to a less reliable grid in the future.
In a press release, NorthWestern Energy spokesman Butch Larcombe said:

Some of the work will involve our customers. More importantly, customers will be asked, via the PSC rate process, to pick up some of the tab for the work. 

As Lee Newspapers Reporter Mike Dennison writes, The Montana Public Service Commission recently adopted higher natural gas rates, to help pay for the DSIP project. Dennison writes that increase is actually lower than a 5.4 percent temporary increase approved last year–but is 4.6 percent higher than the gas rate before the temporary increase was approved. It’s the first permanent gas rate increase for NorthWestern since 2008.

NorthWestern CEO Rowe said the utility will not be seeking higher electric rates this year but may ask the PSC to increase rates in 2014. PSC Chairman Bill Gallagher believes that would be a reasonable request.

“Because the system is aging quickly,” Gallagher said, “It’s necessary at this juncture, I believe, to go in and put some money into repair and upgrade of that system.”

The Montana Consumer Counsel represents ratepayer interests in these discussions with the PSC. Rate Analyst Paul Shulz said the counsel could not comment specifically on potential electric rate increases, as NorthWestern has not formally filed for those increases yet. He says when and if that happens, the group will be looking closely at the proposal.

“Are they doing what they need to do to maintain the system or are they ‘gold plating it?’ Are they going beyond what’s necessary?” Shulz asked. “Are there costs in there that should be born by NorthWestern shareholders, for example, and not rate payers?”

He said it is too soon to answer those questions.

Retirees ask for veto on pension fixes

capitolA group representing retired public employees has written a letter urging Governor Steve Bullock to veto the bill fixing the very pension systems they rely on.

The letter from Association of Montana Retired Public Employees President Russell Wrigg  faults the bill (HB454) for reducing the annual cost of living increases guaranteed to retirees.

“The Association feels betrayed by your office and is adamantly opposed to House Bill 454 at this time,”  Wrigg writes to the governor, “House Bill 454 could have been modified in a way that would be much more palatable to the Association and its members, and all retirees, without inflicting the harm that it has.”

Montana’s two biggest retirement systems are facing more than a $4 billion shortfall over the next 30 years if the bills passed by the legislature to shore up those plans are not signed by the governor. The measures balance the budgets of the pensions by requiring both employers and employees pitch in more money, some natural resource or general fund money is kicked in, and benefits are reduced slightly. It’s that last part that has angered retirees.

The AMRPE initially supported the fix to the Public Employee Retirement System, before it was amended to reduce the cost of living increases. Wrigg says the AMRPE was not consulted on those amendments.

“It is our understanding that your office was actively involved in those amendments that further trampled on the rights of retirees,” Wrigg writes in his letter.

Gov. Bulllock’s Budget Director Dan Villa says the administration understands the concerns of the retirees on the reductions and admits they will likely be found unconstitutional.

“We believe that ultimately when current and retired employees bring challenge to them that they will be successful,” Villa said, adding the bill fixes the retirement system with or without the reduction in yearly raises which he said just make the fix more aggressive.

“When and if they are found unconstitutional by the state courts, we will still have a solvent public pension system that does not increase taxes and we’ll be the first state in the country to do so,” Villa said.

Wrigg said he wants the pension fix bills to pass without the raise reductions–he would prefer that to them dying through a veto. He says the group will consider legal actions against the bills if the governor signs them, which is expected. But, he doesn’t approve of the tactic.

“Legislation through litigation is really not the way to solve our problems in this state,” he said.

National Day of Prayer: infringement of church and state?

Fellowship of Christian Athletes State Director Bob Veroulis reacts to a prayer at a National Day of Prayer event at the state capitol Thursday.

Fellowship of Christian Athletes State Director Bob Veroulis reacts to a prayer at a National Day of Prayer event at the state capitol Thursday.

Montana’s faithful recognized the national Day of Prayer this week.

Dozens gathered at the state capitol building Thursday where some of the state’s top leaders gave their own prayers.

Supporters call it a celebration of religious freedom.

But Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce says one national organization is fighting the day as a violation of church and state.

 

Could state employees still get a 5 and 5 pay plan?

The president of the state’s largest public employee union said Wednesday he will still try to negotiate five percent base pay raises for state employees each of the next two years even though lawmakers only appropriated 75-percent of the funds necessary to do so.

“The bill as introduced had five and five on July one,” MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver said, “but you can make five and five happen anytime.”Legislators cut $38 million from the pay plan bill originally negotiated between employee unions and former-Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Conservative lawmakers argued a full five and five plan was too expensive and would be giving pay increases to many employees who had received other types of raises over the past couple of years. These Republicans wanted a leaner pay plan that specifically requested the governor and unions give greater emphasis to the minority of state employees who have not received any raises for more than four years.

“We see that as a legislative encouragement, but not a mandate,” Feaver said. “It doesn’t say ‘you will do this’ and, in fact, we would believe that would be violative of collective bargaining.”

Feaver said MEA-MFT is standing firm on negotiating the five and five. He says the state can get there by delaying the implementation of raises, lowering their overall cost.

“If you start (the 5 and 5) January 1, you save $34 million,” Feaver said, although he advocates starting at the beginning of October.

“It’s a big priority to me to make sure that we do this the best way that we can with the money that was given to us,” Gov. Steve Bullock said. He said his first priority is to start working through the 200 or so bills delivered to his desk after the close of the 2013 Legislature. Afterward, he said his administration will begin negotiations on the state pay plan–probably in the next few weeks.