Wildlife data must be protected

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Montana has for decades been at the forefront of wildlife conservation among states in the West. We have the best hunting and angling in the country, and Montana has long set the standard in hunting ethics.

As Montanans we value fair chase as an essential part of our sporting heritage, and thatís why we banned game farms nearly two decades ago. We also have many laws and regulations on the books to ensure that fair chase hunting persists. Put simply, fair chase means the animal has a reasonable chance to get away.

But one area in which Montana has fallen behind other states is in the protection of wildlife location data. In todayís world of high technology, data using GPS devices can give a hunter an animalís location with incredible accuracy and specificity. And in some cases, people are using that information to give themselves an overwhelming advantage in hunting.

We were disappointed to see a bill to address the issue of how we regulate that data go down in the Legislature.

SB 127, sponsored by Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, would have made it illegal for people to sell specific wildlife location data. Weíve seen this trend in other states, and Montana had a chance to get ahead of the curve and ban the sale of this data. People sometimes spot a trophy animal in an area after theyíve filled their tag, or just while out hunting for something else, and make it available to other hunters. Some people have chosen to act as brokers, collecting the data and then offering it for a fee to people willing to pay.

The bill passed the Senate, but died in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee. Legislators who voted against it expressed vague concerns over First Amendment issues, but really didnít give any valid reasons for opposing the bill.

However, on a positive note, the Legislature did pass SB 349, also sponsored by Cohenour. This bill makes it illegal to use wildlife location data from Montana FWP biologists to hunt or harass wildlife. Itís an important step, because FWP needs to be able to collect data on wildlife habitat use, migrations, denning sites and other things.

While SB 349 is a step in the right direction, FWP still cannot deny people the information. Yet other states have gone further and have passed laws giving their state wildlife agencies that ability.

Montana needs to look at the issue and decide whether FWP needs that ability too. And thatís where SJ 30, sponsored by Cohenour, comes in. The resolution calls for a Legislative study to look at FWPís data, how itís used and whether we should give the agency the ability to protect that data from some users.

Itís a difficult issue, because Montana has strong public interest laws protecting the publicís right to public information. At the same time, most Montanans would agree that giving someone the exact location of an animal gives a hunter an incredibly unfair advantage that flies in the face of fair chase ethics.

Montana will only maintain our standing as setting the standard in our ethical hunting culture if we strengthen our laws that protect specific wildlife location data. Itís a big issue in the 21st Century, and one that will only get bigger as technology continues to advance.

Kathy Hadley is a hunter and landowner near Deer Lodge. She is past president of the Montana Wildlife Federation and current president of the National Wildlife Federation.

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