Block Management Program Under Scrutiny After Audit

By Beacon Staff

BOZEMAN — Few state programs are as successful as Montana’s Block Management Program in opening up more land to give hunters more opportunity to fill their tags.

For almost 20 years, landowners have agreed to open their property to hunters in exchange for Fish, Wildlife & Parks services and a small reimbursement for wear-and-tear or damage to their property.

In 2012, the program added more than 8 million acres of public hunting grounds to the one-third of the state that is public land.

Such access is important to the average Montana hunter in a time when more people are buying property and closing it to the public. Such landowners then open their property only to outfitters and hunters who can afford to pay high admission prices.

Landowners also benefit from the program.

The Barrick Corp. has long allowed hunters to use 4,000 acres of its property south of the Golden Sunlight Mine near Whitehall.

Last year, Barrick decided to put the property into the Block Management Program mainly for the benefits: help with wildlife management, enhanced enforcement, and liability coverage in case of hunter damage or injury, said mine vice president Mark Thompson.

“It’s not about the money, although we get revenue to put back into the sportsmen’s hands,” Thompson told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “It seemed like it worked very well. I should have known we were getting more use when I had to get three more sign-in books than they gave me.”

So many hunters took advantage of the property that Barrick earned more than $10,000, which it donated to the Jefferson Valley Sportsmen Association this weekend.

The Barrick story is just one example of the win-win nature of block management that engenders such strong support from sportsmen and landowners.

So those groups were dismayed when a recent state audit turned up some problems with the program.

Their worries that the audit’s criticisms could prompt legislators to cut the program have intensified over the past three months as the legislative Environmental Quality Council has repeatedly questioned FWP representatives.

But the timing of the audit could lead to a bigger struggle because it coincides with FWP efforts to get legislators to pass license-fee increases to see its budget through the next five to 10 years.

The auditors focused on two aspects of the program: how FWP evaluates property for inclusion in block management and how landowner payments and benefits are distributed.

They listed seven categories where FWP’s management appeared to fall short.

FWP director Jeff Hagener agreed, with a few clarifications, that problems existed in four of those categories.

The auditors found inconsistencies in how the different FWP regions managed the program and noted that some decisions about property enrollment or agreements with other land agencies had been poorly documented.

The audit also identified inaccuracies in the method used to compensate landowners.

The program normally pays a daily rate of $11 a hunter up to $12,000 a year for each landowner.

Hagener said he was working on correcting inconsistencies, but “one size doesn’t fit all” in a program where FWP has to be able to wheel-and-deal to gain landowner’s participation.

“We could be doing a better job,” Hagener said. “But we need flexibility; different landowners want different things.”

The one item that Hagener fully acknowledged was that funding for the program is insecure. Its two financial pillars – nonresident-license fees and firearm sales-tax funds – are shrinking or could shrink due to several factors.

The FWP committee that is developing a new license-fee structure to renew the agency budget is working to adjust program-funding sources.

This isn’t the first FWP performance audit to address these issues.

The block management program was audited in 1999, four years after it was revamped. That audit found twice as many problem areas as the 2013 audit but some of the criticisms were the same, including poor documentation and concerns about the payment system.

Each Legislature appropriates money for FWP’s Habitat Montana fund, which is used to buy property or conservation easements for wildlife habitat.

Republican legislators had become increasingly angered by all the land that the state bought during former Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s administration. They argued conservation easements were better because they didn’t come with as much debt.

The purchase of the Milk River Ranch in December 2012 just added fuel to the fire. Opponents of the purchase questioned the abbreviated process and what they claim was an excessive sale price. About 30 landowners near the ranch pulled out of block management in protest.

During the session, a handful of bills attempted to limit or eliminate the state’s ability to use Habitat Montana Funds to purchase FWP land.

One bill would have funneled Habitat Montana money into block management reimbursements. Even though sportsmen’s groups support block management, they lobbied against losing habitat funds.

No bill passed, and political resentment remains. So FWP is still on the defensive, not only with the audit but also with a request to increase license fees to provide an additional $5.75 million to its budget to keep the department going for the next four years.

The last time FWP requested a budget adjustment from the Legislature was 2004.

“I’ve talked to a lot of guys that hunt on my ranch, and they’re all supportive of putting more money on a resident license if it was earmarked for the block management program. A lot of people are not too happy with the acquisition that the department’s been doing,” said former legislator and block management participant Ed Grady.

Legislators on the EQC were similarly unhappy with Hagener’s objection to the remaining three audit recommendations.

“I was disappointed when I read the department’s response: Do not concur,” said Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek.

FWP administrator Ken McDonald said the “Do not Concur” responses were based upon a difference of opinion in the audit’s interpretation of the law.

Two recommendations said FWP should require landowners to allow access to public land inholdings if the surrounding land is in block management.

“Our attorney’s think they’re wrong, the DNRC attorneys think they’re wrong,” McDonald said.

Citing private property rights, Hagener said it was up to the landowner to decide how his property could be used – for hunting, for access or both.

Last week, EQC chairman John Brenden, R-Scobey, agreed with Hagener.

“I agree with the department that as a landowner, you should have the right to do whatever you want with your land. I think the audit committee got it wrong there,” Brenden said.

Hagener’s biggest objection was to a recommendation to withhold block-management payments from any landowner with land in FWP conservation easements, something critics have dubbed “double-dipping.”

The audit found most conservation easements contain a provision that the landowner must guarantee a certain amount of hunting access.

Much of Grady’s sprawling ranch northeast of Helena is in a conservation easement, but he enrolled in the block management program in 1995 with the understanding the land could be in both programs. In the 1980s, Grady sponsored the bill that created FWP conservation easements.

“At that time, there was no mention of double-dipping,” Grady said.

Auditor Joe Murray said FWP wasn’t violating any statutes but “given the ongoing funding issues that the block management program is having, we don’t believe it makes good business sense to continue paying these landowners.”

Brenden agreed.

“The department is complaining they need more money from licenses, and there’s people double-dipping. That’s insane,” Brenden said.

Both programs provide access for hunters, Hagener said, but the conservation easement program was created to preserve habitat while the block management program reimburses landowners for the damage caused by hunters.

Some easement payments didn’t include reimbursement for hunter damage, so Hagener said they should get it through block management.

Other landowners such as Chinook rancher Henry Gordon have block-management land that is separate from their easement.

“My argument is there’s 15,000 acres in the conservation easement but there’s also 20,000 acres in block management that’s not in the easement,” Gordon said. “I got roads to fix and fences to fix. Where’s the double-dipping?”

Many legislators are still questioning the amount of money dedicated to administration of the program, saying more should go to landowner payments.

The EQC has no authority to tell FWP how to respond to the audit, but Brenden told the EQC members that the one thing they could do was cut the FWP budget.

“FWP is having a hard time with their budget, but every department will tell you that,” Brenden said. “We’re trying to see if Fish, Wildlife & Parks will ever be run like a business. If I ran FWP like it is today, I’d be broke tomorrow.”

EQC member Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, said he’s frustrated by the block-management financial situation, but he thinks most EQC members have softened on the audit over the past few months.

But time will tell whether the audit will play into FWP’s request for license increases.

“I think we’re past it,” Welborn said. “Now, if there’s legitimate concern over the license funding model, we’ve still got time. I think there’s a lot of potential for support but we’ve got a little bit of work left to do.”

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