As the session winds into its final few weeks, lawmakers aren’t slowing down – we’re still wading through a few big bills that were thrown in the hopper at the last minute, including the Aquatic Invasive Species bill package.

This is a big one, and agriculturalists aren’t taking it lightly. Preventing the spread and proliferation of aquatic invasive species like the zebra and quagga mussels is a high priority to Montana agriculture, particularly because of their potential impact on irrigated agriculture. Recreationalists, boaters, tourists, fishermen and municipal water users – that’s pretty much everyone! – have to be invested in carrying these bills through. It’s a big job and an even bigger price tag to get it done and keep our waterways free of these mussels.

We’ll continue to track these bills to the end – there’s a lot of heavy lifting still to do to craft these AIS laws into an aggressive, responsible response to this threat. In other invasive news, Rep. Kelly Flynn’s proposal to creating funding for noxious weed control on public lands is moving forward. Here’s the latest: 

House Bill 434: Creating the Montana Wildlife Habitat Improvement Act

Sponsored by Rep. Kelly Flynn (R) HD-70, Townsend, heard in Senate Fish & Game Committee Thursday, April 6. 

Historically, the Department of Agriculture has been the sole home to Montana’s Noxious Weed program. Noxious weed control and prevention is a major priority for farmers and ranchers in this state, but to truly be effective, it must be a priority for everyone.

We know that if our neighbor never sprays any weeds it doesn’t matter how aggressive our weed management program is — we’ll never totally eradicate the weeds. The same applies on state or federal lands. Unless there’s a coordinated, collaborative effort to control weeds in our state across all landscapes, it’s unlikely we’ll make any progress.

House Bill 434 would create an additional noxious weed control program within the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to focus on weed control on public lands. House Bill 434 also creates the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Advisory Council, which would be made up of a myriad of members, including a livestock producer, a farmer and a commercial applicator.

This bill also allows the use of federal dollars to fund weed control efforts in Montana.  Pittman-Robertson dollars would be used to award grants to communities, noxious weed management districts, conservation districts, and certain nonprofit organizations collaborating on weed management projects on state and federal land in Montana.

State and Federal lands play a pivotal role in managing weeds in our state.  Weeds are spread in a multitude of ways including via boats and vehicles entering and exiting fishing access sites, people driving or hiking across public lands while hunting and also via wildlife, livestock, wild fire and water ways. Controlling weeds on public lands is immensely beneficial to wildlife habitat and recreation as well.  The fewer weeds there are on public lands the better the habitat and food source for wildlife and livestock alike.

Montana Farm Bureau members’ policy supports this bill because we are strong supporters of aggressive weed control programs. We appreciate the Advisory Council’s inclusion of agriculturalists and the efforts being made to collaborate with the good work already being done through the Noxious Weed Trust Fund.   

House Bill 631: Provide student loan forgiveness for beginning farmers 

Sponsored by Rep. Zach Brown (D) HD 63, Bozeman, heard in Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee on Wednesday, April 5.

The Grow Through Agriculture (GTA) program is housed within the Department of Agriculture. The program focuses on providing loan and grant money to individuals and businesses that are diversifying their agricultural businesses by including value-added processing and products in Montana.

House Bill 631 would allow the GTA Agriculture Development Council to initially direct $50,000 toward helping young and beginning farmers and ranchers pay off student loan debt.

To be eligible, individuals would complete an application and interview process with the GTA program. They have to be returning to a farm or ranch for a minimum of five years and must derive 51% of their income from production agriculture to be eligible. Applicants may be returning to a family farm or ranch, or be buying or leasing their own, and would be eligible to have up to 50% of their loan debt repaid.

Montana Farm Bureau members support this legislation.  The population of farmers and ranchers is rapidly aging, and this is one way we can remove a barrier that may prevent young people from returning to the farm and ranch. 

Chelcie Cargill is Montana Farm Bureau Federation’s Director of State Affairs and a fifth-generation rancher from Melville, Montana. Chelcie can be contacted at (406) 930-2299 or Nicole Rolf is the Director of National Affairs and also a rancher from Miles City, Montana. Nicole can be contacted at (406) 951-2429 or The Montana Farm Bureau Federation is a non-partisan, non-profit, grassroots organization that represents 22,000 member families in Montana.