Five candidates for Montana’s governor seat participated in a forum in Bozeman Saturday to discuss issues like whether grizzly bears should be federally listed as threatened species, how the Madison River should be regulated and how state government should support outdoor recreation.
The forum, organized by the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association during its annual winter convention, lasted 90 minutes. Mac Minard, executive director of the organization, said the top-fundraising candidates in the third quarter were invited to sit on the panel.
Three Republicans — Attorney General Tim Fox, state Sen. Al Olszewski and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte — and two Democrats — Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Whitney Williams, Missoula businesswoman and philanthropist — each made a pitch for Montana’s top governing seat tailored to the issues at hand: outdoor recreation and state management.
The candidates were asked how they would drive and support Montana’s outdoor recreation economy and both Fox and Gianforte said that government regulation was hindering growth. Gianforte said he had heard “horror stories” from people about dealing with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and that the agency needed new leadership.
Fox said he would make appointments to policy-making boards that reflect the interest of Montana’s outfitters and guides.
“We need to see where we can make it a little easier for you to breathe,” Fox said.
Olszewski said the state should be spending more money on advertising tourism and outdoor recreation opportunities. He said this could help bring more people to rural places around the state.
“The fact is is that promotion matters, and I’m going to do that for you,” Olszewski said.
Williams and Cooney talked about the importance of making sure the association and other interested parties have a voice in state policy. Williams added that she’d like to see Congress restore full funding to the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million, which has only been partially funded in the last few decades.
“The outdoor recreation economy is boundless, and we have to take full advantage of that,” Cooney said.
None of the candidates definitively supported proposed crowd and outfitter restrictions on the Madison River. FWP has been weighing its options for regulating the Madison. The river set a record in 2017 with 207,000 angler days, making it one of Montana’s busiest rivers.
The outfitters association described the proposed regulations as “devastating” to outfitters and guides who use the Madison River in a question about whether the candidates would support such policies.
All three Republicans gave a hard “no” to supporting the regulations. Olszewski said that isn’t the role of FWP, and Fox said the state should find other ways to disperse crowding on the river.
“The voice of the local community has not been heard,” said Gianforte, referring to the businesses and local towns that rely on tourism in the area.
Both Cooney and Williams said the decision would need to be made with all interested parties at the table. Cooney said he isn’t in favor of Helena dictating and mandating these types of policies, and there’s no easy answer. Williams said it’s important for policymakers to look at the data that show how the river is impacted, and that user experience is something to consider.
“We have to make sure that we’re reflecting back what folks want to see,” Williams said.
The final question of the forum concerned whether grizzly bears should continue to be federally protected by the Endangered Species Act. All five candidates said they believe the bear population had recovered and that it’s time for the state to manage them. The candidates were split on what that management would look like.
Gianforte described Montana as overrun with bears, and said he does not oppose allowing grizzly bear hunts, although said it’s not the goal of delisting. Fox said he’s supported delisting efforts in the past by intervening in lawsuits that would have made the action more difficult. He said it is time for a managed hunting program. Olszewski said he also supports delisting and hunting, especially as more bears move out onto Montana’s prairie.
Cooney said he believed grizzly bears will be delisted and that there likely will be a managed hunt, and that the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock would determine the best way to handle the transition.
Williams said Montana should celebrate the recovery of the grizzly bear population, that it was an accomplishment of policy-making. She said it is time for the state to manage the bears, but that the jury is still out on whether there should be a managed hunt.
After the forum, Minard said the association organized the event to help its members build bridges with candidates and learn how they plan to represent Montana. He said he was particularly interested in how the candidates answered the Madison River regulation question.
“We want people to make informed choices,” Minard said.