FWP Commission Promises Review After Criticism

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A chastened Fish, Wildlife and Parks commission has pledged to take a new look at how it makes rules for Montana anglers and hunters after state lawmakers accused commissioners of regularly overstepping their authority.

The state agency’s mission to manage Montana’s diverse and abundant wildlife in a way that protects species and allows sustainable hunting and fishing often makes it a flashpoint for anger from lawmakers and the public. The FWP commission is comprised of representatives from five geographical districts who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

Criticism of the commission has ranged from lifting anglers’ limits on walleye without public input to scoping relocation sites without having a management plan for quarantined wild bison from Yellowstone National Park.

The Legislature considered scores of bills in the recently ended session that would have changed how FWP operates and how it manages certain species. FWP Director Joe Maurier was a fixture at the Capitol, frequently called before legislative committees to defend his agency’s practices.

Toward the end of the session, the state Senate even rejected the reappointment of commission vice chairman Dan Vermillion, with angry senators saying they would oppose any reconfirmation bid to the commission because they believe the department has been poorly run. The Senate backtracked the next day and confirmed Vermillion.

“We did take a hell of a beating in the legislative session,” chairman Bob Ream said in a teleconferenced commission meeting on Thursday.

Lawmakers passed a bill that would have added strict rules on how the FWP makes its regulations, what it must consider in rulemaking and ensure the opportunity for public comment. Senate Bill 255’s sponsor, state Sen. John Brenden, called it “a way to keep the FWP commission on the straight and narrow in their decision making process.”

Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed the bill late last month, saying it would have added expensive bureaucratic processes without any benefits. The commission acts in a transparent manner and provides several steps for public input, the governor said in his veto letter.

But commissioners said they got the message lawmakers were trying to send. On Thursday, commissioners vowed to dedicate part of their June meeting to review how they make decisions.

Commissioner Ron Moody said the commission needs to address the criticism that emerged during the legislative session before it begins ruling on new issues.

“I’m a little uncertain that we’ve got both feet on the law,” Moody said.

The state law guiding the commission’s practices is broad and doesn’t give much direction, Ream said.

Commissioners agreed to examine the processes they go through when they set regulations and the opportunities for public comment, particularly in making last-minute changes to a regulation after it had already gone through the public comment period.

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