Cutting Corners: Montana Looks to Improve Access Opportunities

Who ever said that hunting isn’t a contact sport has never spent any time at the Montana Legislature. There are … Continued

Who ever said that hunting isn’t a contact sport has never spent any time at the Montana Legislature. There are over 200 bills and bill draft requests that deal with hunting, angling, access, and conservation issues this year. They range from the absurd, like the attempts to stop bighorn sheep transplants (Senate Bill 83) to the enlightened.

Access issues in Montana are often contentious and can even involve the county sheriff. Accusations between landowners, sportsmen, and outfitters provide some of the most acrimonious political battles in the state.

This session though, there’s something different. A most unlikely pair of legislators has teamed up to solve the complex issue of corner crossing. House Bill 235, co-sponsored by liberal Missoula representative Ellie Hill and Tea Party firebrand Kreyton Kerns of Laurel, would finally put to rest the question of whether or not hunters and recreationists can access public lands by crossing the corner where those lands intersect.

A lot of Montana—and a lot of the West for that matter—features a checkerboard of public and private lands. That intermingled land ownership, much of which only intersects at corner posts, can lead to a heck of a lot of public land being closed off due to lack of adequate access.

Hunters for years have contended that they should be able to hop from one corner of public land to another, without ever touching foot on private land. Landowners have long held that by doing so, hunters are trespassing by breaking the plane over private land. That’s right; hunters are invading their airspace. Current law across the West falls into a grey area: corner crossing isn’t legal, but it’s not technically illegal either.

While there is no doubt that some hunters do intentionally trespass or that others might be off their mark on the corner by a few feet, the reality is with GPS technology and a good map, most hunters who work this angle know exactly where they are. Their intent is not to trespass, but to get deeper into public land, away from the mass of other hunters, to find solitude and unpressured animals. In Montana, the ability to legally access public land at a corner would instantly open some 1.5 million acres of public land to recreational use.

House Bill 235 is widely supported by hunter-advocacy groups like the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Public Land and Water Access Association. The opposition comes from the agricultural community and some of the fringe private property groups like the United Property Owners of Montana (who advocated for gutting Montana’s landmark Stream Access Law last session). These are the same battle lines that have been drawn on this issue since it was first brought forward in the early ‘90’s.

The bill’s future isn’t clear, but the scuttlebutt around the Capitol is that the likelihood of passage out of the Judiciary committee grew 10 times due to the co-sponsorship of Kerns, who is the chairman of that committee. The bill has an uphill battle if it does move out of committee. Montana’s House of Representatives is not known for advancing pro-access bills.

But there’s a hint of something different here, and there is a hope that in the unlikely alliance between legislators better known for fighting each other on social issues like abortion and gun rights, something positive for hunters and anglers could be accomplished.