Legislative Pulse: Montana State Sen. Fielder Fights for Stronger State Role on Lands and Species

Published February 16, 2016

Editor’s Note: Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder (R-Thompson Falls) serves on the Senate Judiciary; Fish and Game; and Natural Resources Committees. She chaired Montana’s study of federal lands in 2013. 

Burnett: Sen. Fielder, why have you focused so much of your effort in the Montana Senate on environmental issues and the appropriate balance of power between the federal and state government? 

Fielder: What could be more important than protecting our environment, which sustains life, and preserving a constitutionally balanced government, which sustains our liberties, rights, and opportunities to enjoy life? Right now, both are off-track and our whole nation is suffering as a result. Distant federal bureaucracies have claimed control of over half the land in the American West. Federal policies are created by people living thousands of miles away from the lands in question, who don’t understand Western lands, and [who] are not accountable to the people living near the lands directly impacted by their decisions. This disconnect is devastating our environment, communities, and economy. 

Burnett: As a state senator, you are steeped in endangered species issues. Which wildlife policy issues are you battling in Montana at this time? 

Fielder: The biggest problem is the politicized science driving critical decisions in Washington, DC. Special interests are using every species and reason they can dream up to mislead caring people and shut down responsible management of our lands and resources. Much of the science being put forth is not sound science at all, and it is harming, not helping, our environment.

For example, data from a 1997 study, using outdated radio telemetry technology, were used to assert all grizzly bears avoid roads. The biologists only monitored two bears [on] two mornings per week. Their study was never peer reviewed or published. Yet, citing this study, the U.S. Forest Service produced a management plan preventing almost all human activity on millions of acres of public lands in the region, including access for recreation, wildfire prevention, and resource management. The federal government even acknowledged in its 2011 amendments to the Idaho Panhandle and Kootenai National Forests plans, “The selected alternative will limit our ability as resource managers to respond to fire, … insects and disease, and to provide timber or other commodities.”

They completely ignored recent, more comprehensive studies using DNA samples and GPS satellite collars tracking numerous grizzly bears 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The newer studies clearly documented grizzlies preferred to spend more time around roads and human activity than in unroaded wilderness areas.

Despite repeated requests from elected officials to rewrite their plans considering the newer, more comprehensive scientific evidence, the USFS refused to do so. They claimed the 1997 study was “best available science,” acting as if better studies, one of which was performed under the direction of Chris Servheen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear program manager, did not even exist. As a result, old logging roads that formerly provided access for forest management, recreation, search and rescue, and firefighting are being torn out at taxpayers’ expense. Vegetation management to reduce wildfire risk, improve habitat, and benefit our economy cannot be done in these areas now. 

Burnett: Sen. Fielder, states are being buffeted by an array of new regulations and restrictions imposed by the federal government. What is your take on the federal government’s treatment of the states?

Fielder: It’s unfair and unwise. When federal bureaucrats control 80 percent of the land and resources in one state but control less than 1 percent in another state, there is no equality between states. Federal employees and federal judges who lord over millions of acres of lands in the West are not elected and have no accountability to the citizens there. They get paid the same whether they do a good job or not. In too many cases they are doing a horrible job, utterly destroying our environment, jeopardizing lives, and killing our communities. This is why it is critical to transfer management of the public lands to the states for more effective local care.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.