Every two years, tens of thousands of Montana hunters gather in community centers, school cafeterias, and church basements to comment on proposed deer and elk hunting regulations.
It’s Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ biennial “season-setting” process, and I’m eternally surprised at the passion and knowledge that hunters bring to these meetings. They push back against department proposals to raise cow-elk permit quotas by as few as 25 tags. They alternatively admonish biologists to cut back or increase doe harvest. And they talk about the wildlife trends they’ve seen from their miles in boot leather and seasons behind rifles. Participants submit their written comments by the ream, hoping to influence the final season structures and quotas that are ultimately approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
It’s a messy process, but it ensures that anyone who wants a voice in how FWP manages big game gets a say.
Contrast that public process with the legislative hearing held Tuesday in Helena by the House Fish, Wildlife & Parks Committee. At that meeting, House Bill 505 was introduced by its sponsor, Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, a Republican from Martinsdale whose family is one of the state’s largest landowners. The bill would grant owners of more than a section of land routinely used by elk to sponsor up 10 non-resident elk hunters. Those tags, which could total in the thousands, are in addition to the 17,000 non-resident licenses currently issued by FWP. The new sponsored tags would only be available to landowners in areas where elk population goals are being met, a trigger that’s designed to incentivize landowners to find creative ways to reduce problematic populations of elk. HB505 also provides a fast-track bonus point system for hunters who opt to hunt only cow elk.
Put aside the untold complex implications of these drastic measures. The most telling detail is that they are being proposed entirely outside the established public process. Dozens of sportsmen and women lined up in the hearing room and online to testify against HB505, but it’s possible—likely, even, unless everyday hunters protest in far greater numbers—that the committee will approve the bill and send it to the House floor for a vote. Entirely short-circuiting any sort of meaningful public process and enshrining bad public policy into Montana law.
FWP’s newly appointed director, Hank Worsech, in explaining that HB505 originated in the director’s office, told the committee that “This is a bill we worked with the speaker on, so we’re going to own this.”
You can read others’ concerns about the implications of the bill to Montana’s traditions of public ownership of wildlife and shared management responsibility. My concerns are with the implications of Worsech’s decision — presumably supported and encouraged by Governor Gianforte — to bring this bill directly to the Legislature, and the danger it poses to FWP’s ability to be an honest broker in moderating the interests of landowners and sportsmen in an increasingly fractious operating environment.
Fish, Wildlife & Parks (where I worked for 6 years earlier this century and where I briefly served as a commissioner until last month), has served its various constituencies well as a sort of referee, setting the rules but bringing various voices to the table to find sustainable solutions to complex problems. Landowners may not have always liked the outcome, but neither did hunters. In that way, a sort of manageable parity was achieved. FWP has effectively used tools such as citizen advisory councils, statewide and regional working groups, and its very public processes to find durable common ground.
But with Worsech’s “owning” of a highly contentious bill that purports to solve elk management issues by giving landowners all the tangible benefit and hunters only abstract scraps, it’s hard to see the department acting as an honest broker, or using science and data to support its decisions.
But maybe that’s exactly what our governor and legislative leaders intend. Weaken the department. Undermine confidence in its director. Gut the morale of FWP’s traditional customers. Short-circuit public involvement. Break FWP’s bond with hunters. Once these impediments are removed, Team Gianforte can get on with their real work: letting landowners manage our state’s public wildlife in a way that benefits them.
Andrew McKean, a former Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioner, lives in Glasgow.