Wildlife Agency Begins New Era with Former Chief

By Beacon Staff

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and its commission of decision-makers are undergoing a notable transition with the arrival of Gov. Steve Bullock’s new administration.

Bullock reappointed Jeff Hagener as FWP’s director in December. Hagener served as FWP’s chief from 2001-08 under former Govs. Judy Martz and Brian Schweitzer.

Bullock also overhauled the FWP Commission, the body largely responsible for shaping policy and making final decisions, with three new members — Richard Stuker of Chinook, Matthew Tourtlotte of Billings and Lawrence Wetsit of Wolf Point — and a new chairman, Dan Vermillion of Livingston.

Bob Ream from Helena withdrew during the confirmation process and a fourth commissioner, representing this section of the state, is expected to be tabbed in the near future.

Hagener sat down with reporters in Kalispell last week to discuss the agency’s goals and directives under the new administration, including reviewing the land acquisition policy, wildlife management and financial stability.

“A lot of the issues are the same as before but some of the things have probably gotten more intense,” he said.

Land Acquisitions
In the last four years, the state has acquired roughly 80,000 acres of land for public use. Montana now has more than 400,000 acres of deeded land that FWP owns and manages, Hagener said, along with fishing access sites and state parks. Last year FWP paid roughly $750,000 in taxes on those lands, Hagener said.

Bullock directed the new chief to review the state’s land holdings and “make sure that we are being good neighbors and that we are managing those lands the best we can,” Hagener said.

Hagener said the agency will try to answer the question: “How can we work with these landowners to get more opportunity for the public, recognizing their needs and the reason they own the land but also recognizing how we can better manage that land for everybody’s behalf?”

Revenue Sources
“We need to take a look at financial stability in the organization,” Hagener said.

FWP functions primarily on two funding sources: license fees and federal grants accrued from gun and ammunition sales and distributed through the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. While increased sales in firearms and ammo has recently resulted in more money for FWP, license sales are declining, similar to other states. Nonresident licenses have dropped in recent years and the state saw fewer than 15,000 applications last year, compared to the average of about 17,000, Hagener said. Between 2005-06, the state was receiving roughly 22,000.

“It is a concern,” he said.

Montana also loses roughly $5 million due to discounted or free licenses for a variety of reasons, he noted. The resident fee also remains one of the lowest in the West, he said, and the agency is looking into proposing an increase at the next Legislature. A fee increase is proposed about every 10 years to keep up with inflation and that’s overdue, Hagener said.

“We need to take a look at our whole license structure right now,” he said.

FWP is proposing another expansion to wolf hunting in Montana by extending the rifle season two months and increasing the bag limit from one to five. The commission last month tentatively approved FWP’s new management plan, which is open for public comment until June 24.
As a sign of the issue’s contentiousness, the agency has already received “thousands” of comments from “around the world,” according to Hagener.

“There’s a lot of people who believe we should allow a lot more wolves, but on the other hand, there’s a lot of people who say we should have a lot less wolves and we should be a lot more aggressive,” he said.

Hunters and trappers killed a total of 225 wolves last season. An additional 104 wolves were removed because of depredation incidents. FWP reported there were at least 625 living in the state at the end of 2012, a 4 percent decrease from the year before.

If given final approval by the FWP commission, the season would run from Sept. 15 to March 15. Hunters and trappers could kill up to five wolves.

“We’re hoping to reduce the wolf numbers a little bit from where they are now, because we think that’s sustainable,” Hagener said.

Grizzly Bears
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month published a proposed conservation strategy for grizzlies in Northwest Montana in the event the population is delisted. The draft plan, which is open to public comment until Aug. 1, includes a framework for managing grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, including a regulated hunting season, which Hagener said he supports.

“We’ve always felt that we had healthy populations of bears (in the NCDE) and we had good habitat,” he said. “But when you see the activity like you see in this valley or on the east front, where you have a lot more bears becoming more visible, we believe a lot of that is a result of the primary habitats being full.”

Wildlife officials are expected to propose delisting the NCDE grizzlies within two years.

“Part of that delisting, we think it’s appropriate to allow hunting management,” Hagener said, citing the agency’s constant need to euthanize problem bears.

Montana remains one of three states opposed to federal protections for wolverines. A pending proposal by the USFWS would declare the elusive animal as a threatened species, ending the state’s trapping season. Hagener penned a letter to the agency in opposition to the designation, contending that the state’s population is healthy and questioning the validity of climate change’s reported impact.

Conservation groups that sued FWP claim that climate change is threatening wolverines, which live in cold, alpine habitat.

Hagener disputes that notion and said FWP strongly asserts that wolverines are not threatened with extinction.

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