Montana tries to balance wildlife data and hunting ethics

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

HELENA (AP) — Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ head of research Justin Gude scrolled the mouse across the computer screen, checking a couple of boxes as the map zeroed in on several GPS data points north of Livingston.

The series of yellow dots showed the location of a collared cow elk in the Bangtail Mountains — one of 10 elk tracked as part of a study there, he told lawmakers at a recent meeting of the Environmental Quality Council. The collars in question record location once an hour and upload it to a satellite and central database every 11 hours.

“At 9 a.m. this morning, this is where this animal was,” he said.

But Gude and other state officials did not come to the EQC to talk about research. They came at the request of the council which is studying how the data collected from more than 1,100 collared animals in the state may be misused, the Independent Record reported.

While GPS collars are invaluable to researchers and wildlife managers, the data they produce are the subject of debate about who should have access to the information and why. Some hunters have requested and received the exact latitude and longitude of collared animals, and that has conservation groups and lawmakers concerned about violating the edict of fair chase hunting or the potential to monetize the data.

“I think we need to put some protections around this (data),” Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, told the council. “We’ve heard about the ways and kinds of information people are requesting and you can see how they could be used in not a way that comports with Montana’s wildlife heritage.”

In the past two years Montana has received 45 requests for wildlife location data, and of those requests 24 self-reported their intention to use the data to hunt, said Becky Dockter, FWP’s chief legal counsel. The agency has little choice but to release the information.

“There are precious few exceptions to allowance of keeping that information in house and not providing it to the requestor,” she said, adding that the exceptions to open records law include sensitive information such as confidential criminal justice information or personnel files.

In 2019, Cohenour brought legislation that would have eliminated the release of state wildlife location data entirely. That drew pushback from natural resource developers who request the data for environmental reviews as well as open government advocates. A compromise bill that outlaws the use of the information for hunting did pass, and EQC is tasked with continuing to look at the issue and potential changes to further curb misuse.

John MacDonald, lobbyist for the Montana Newspaper Association, noted that unlike some other states that have prohibited release of wildlife location data, Montana’s Constitution allows relatively few exceptions to the public’s right to know. The association opposed Cohenour’s original bill over creating a new exception to make currently public information confidential, but did support the final version criminalizing its use for hunting.

“At this point I think it would be a mistake to make any change to the statute that we have currently,” MacDonald said. “I don’t think anything that would limit the public’s right to that information would withstand a constitutional challenge.”

MacDonald, who continues to work on the issue with conservation groups and FWP, suggested including a cover sheet for anyone requesting the information that details its prohibited use for hunting and that game wardens be notified for anyone that self-reports hunting as their purpose.

But curtailing the data’s use likely also walks a fine line under the Montana Constitution. In nearly all other cases information deemed public has no restrictions on its use. Those seeking public information also have no obligation to disclose their intended purpose nor even identify themselves when requesting it. That makes most screening questions unenforceable, although nothing bars the state from asking.