Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Thousands of Montanans are asking Sen. Steve Daines to hear them out regarding his bill to remove three areas of federal land from wilderness consideration.

Last week, three Montana conservation groups delivered a petition to Daines’ Helena office that asks him to hold a public meeting to discuss his “Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act.”

More than 2,000 Montanans signed the online petition – they had to provide their address to prove their residency – sponsored by Wild Montana, Montana Conservation Voters and Mountain Mamas.

“Sen. Daines, for too long you have avoided our input, pushing bills that we don’t want. We cannot support S. 2216 in its current state, and we call on you to meet publicly with
Montanans to hear our concerns with this made-in-Washington bill,” the petition said.

On Tuesday, when asked if the senator would hold a public meeting, a Daines spokesperson said in an email, “Senator Daines’ office has met directly with Wild Montana and the Wilderness Society, as well as many other constituents, several times to discuss his ‘Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act.’ Senator Daines has spent years discussing this issue with key stakeholders, sportsmen groups and county commissioners to hear all sides of the issue.”

The act, S.2216 introduced in July, would remove more than 100,000 acres in three wilderness study areas from wilderness consideration: the Middle Fork Judith, Hoodoo Mountain and Wales Creek. Managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Hoodoo Mountain and Wales Creek sit between Drummond and the Blackfoot River valley and are more than 11,000 acres each. The Middle Fork Judith is 81,000 acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service south of Great Falls.

When it was introduced in July, the bill listed several findings detailing a number of high-level agency decisions made by Republican administrations that found various areas unsuitable for wilderness.

The findings included BLM Director Cy Jamison’s 1991 recommendation that the Hoodoo Mountain and Wales Creek study areas were unsuitable. Jamison had been an aide to Montana Rep. Ron Marlenee prior to working for Reagan-era Interior secretary James Watt.

Also included in the findings was the 2020 BLM Missoula Office Resource Management Plan issued under the Trump administration that recommended the removal of the Hoodoo Mountain and Wales Creek areas from wilderness consideration. In October 2020, a Great Falls judge ruled that the resource management plan was invalid because acting BLM director William Perry Pendley had signed it. President Donald Trump appointed Pendley, but Pendley was never confirmed by the Senate.

However, when Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., reported the bill to the Senate on Jan. 9, the bill had been amended to strike all the findings. Now, the bill just says the three wilderness study areas will be managed as regular federal land.

Daines introduced similar bills in 2017 and 2022.

In 2017, Daines sponsored the Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act to release almost 500,000 acres of USFS wilderness study areas from protection, including the Middle Fork Judith. In the House, former Rep. Greg Gianforte introduced a similar bill that added more study areas. The bills were backed by mining, grazing and motorized recreation groups, but both died in 2018.

In 2022, Daines introduced another bill as a counter to Sen. Jon Tester’s Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act, a collaborative bill that would add 78,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. In an October 2021 committee hearing, Daines said the two bills should be passed together, but neither made it out of committee by the end of 2022.

“I think there should be a balance between preserving areas deemed suitable for wilderness while also allowing Montanans to make appropriate use of lands deemed not suitable for wilderness,” Daines testified in October 2021.

Both senators reintroduced their bills in 2023. In September, both bills passed the Senate committee on Energy and Natural Resources as part of a package of 21 bills and were reported to the Senate last week.

“My ‘Montana Sportsmen Conservation Act’ will improve the ability to restore wildlife habitat, enhance sportsmen opportunity, mitigate wildfire risk and increase public access to public lands in Montana,” Daines said in a July committee hearing. “In summary, my bill would mean more public access and more public input for public lands.”

It’s that public input that the petitioners are requesting now. They point to a 2022 University of Montana Crown of the Continent and Great Yellowstone Initiative poll that found 6% support eliminating protection for seven USFS wilderness study areas. However, the survey didn’t ask about BLM areas. The survey also found 23% would support motorized recreation or oil and gas exploration in wilderness study areas, up from 15% in 2020.

“It’s not asking much for the senator to meet with us before he introduces a bill that would change these places forever,” Jennifer Buszka, an East Helena public lands advocate, said in a release.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at

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