'Double dipping' in hunter access program riles panel

2014-01-09T17:36:00Z 2014-04-24T14:21:04Z 'Double dipping' in hunter access program riles panelBy BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

An audit of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks public hunting access program found several problems, including what auditors saw as double payments to owners of FWP conservation easements.

The report riled several legislators on the Environmental Quality Council, which heard highlights during its meeting Thursday in Helena.

The audit was conducted by the Legislative Audit Division, which examined FWP’s Block Management Program for 2012. Block Management pays private landowners a fee to allow hunters public access to their lands. The audit made seven recommendations to FWP on ways to improve its methods for identifying lands for inclusion, paying landowners and being consistent in its program across the state.

Wildlife bureau chief Ken McDonald attempted to cool tempers by saying the agency agreed in part with much of the report and is working to rectify and address problems identified. But that seemed of little comfort to legislators who sought assurances that the agency and auditors would report back to the EQC to update members on actions taken.

One of the most surprising items revealed in the audit was that FWP is paying for lands enrolled in Block Management that it has already purchased conservation easements on. As part of the conservation easement agreement, hunters are guaranteed access and the cost of that is figured into the purchase price.

According to the audit, there were 26 Block Management Areas either all or part of which contained 23 conservation easements purchased at a cost of $11.6 million. All of the easements contain provisions requiring landowners to allow public hunting access and establish a minimum number of hunters that landowners must allow on the easement.

Between 2001 and 2012, the auditors found, FWP paid $2 million through the Block Management Program to the easement landowners. Excluding the payments to the easement owners would free up $200,000 annually for the Block Management Program, the audit said, providing money to enroll other lands.

In one instance the audit found that FWP’s Block Management agreement actually allowed the landowner to admit only the minimum number of hunters outlined in the easement agreement.

“I just can’t imagine after being on the (Fish and Wildlife) commission and the Fish, Wildlife and Parks (committee) in the Senate that I didn’t know about that until the audit,” said Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, a frequent critic of the state agency and chairman of the EQC. “The department is complaining about it needs more money and yet people are double dipping. That’s insane. It’s a hell of a way to run a business.”

McDonald defended the payments to easement owners, saying Block Management is seen as a way to compensate landowners for hunter impacts to the landscape, not for access. In addition, he said the Block Management Area may include more land than was purchased in the easement.

In his eight-page response to the audit, FWP director Jeff Hagener agreed with only one of the audit’s seven recommendations, partly agreed with three and disagreed with three.

Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek, said he was “very disappointed” when he read Hagener’s responses to the audit, calling the comments arrogant. Sen. Gene Vuckovich, D-Anaconda, seemed particularly frustrated by FWP’s stance.

“Why even get this audit if we can’t do anything about it when they disagree with six-sevenths of it?” he questioned.

Brenden said, “I’ll tell you what we can do about it. We can cut their budget, not raise their license fees. That’s the only way you can control things. The power is in the purse.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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