FWP addresses audit criticism with changes

2014-04-27T00:00:00Z FWP addresses audit criticism with changesBy BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Changes have been made to policies regarding Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks’ popular Block Management Program in response to a critical 2013 audit.

“We’re trying to do something tangible for the audit team who will come back in 2015 and ask what we did,” said Alan Charles, who manages the program for FWP.

The audit raised the hackles of some legislators and put FWP at odds with the Legislative Audit Division, which compiled the report. The part that drew the most fire was when the audit accused landowners of “double-dipping” if they already had a conservation easement that required public hunting but also took part in the Block Management Program, which reimburses landowners for impacts caused by hunters.

“That’s a huge misunderstanding,” said Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, a member of the Private Land/Public Wildlife Council, during a Wednesday meeting of the group in Billings. “They enroll in Block Management trying to be a good neighbor and it blows up in their face.”

Since the release of the audit, FWP has repeatedly defended its Block Management payments to easement owners, noting that landowners sometimes provide access to more land than is included in the easement and that the BMP payments help landowners deal with hunter impacts.

“No one is making money off of Block Management,” said Joe Perry, chairman of the PL/PW Council. “The impacts to their land exceed whatever they are getting. Double-dipping is not true.”

Contracts

It was at the same meeting that Charles announced FWP’s changes to the Block Management Program. Out of seven recommendations offered, FWP agreed with one, partially agreed with three and objected to three others.

To address criticism of the program’s consistency in enrollment, contracting and re-enrollment processes, FWP has decided to complete an enrollment evaluation form assessing each property. Contracts that are being renewed will only be renewed for one year. New enrollees will have a payment system based on an estimate of the number of hunter days. The second year would be based on the actual number of hunter days that occurred in the first year. The third year will be based on an average of the first and second years.

Landowners who place a restriction on any species or gender legal to hunt during a contract period — such as not allowing any buck deer hunting — will not be eligible to receive the species/gender impact payment unless the restriction is approved by the regional FWP supervisor.

If a landowner chooses to restrict hunting to a time period less than Sept. 1-Jan. 1, the landowner will not be eligible to receive the length-of-season impact payment. That will not apply, though, if the landowner wants to rest areas periodically throughout the season.

Funding

The audit recommended FWP reduce BMP expenditures or increase revenues to address shortfalls in funding, which the department agreed with. To meet that objective, FWP has not been expanding the program and is supplementing funding for now with federal dollars. The agency is also hoping that its proposals, still being developed, to raise resident license fees and modify licenses to simplify the system, will be approved. Those proposals will undergo public scrutiny this spring.

“If this doesn’t pass, then we have an immediate problem,” Perry said. “You still have to operate this department, and you don’t operate it on a fixed budget that was set 10 years ago.”

Funding for the program comes largely from the sale of nonresident hunting licenses. But as those sales have dropped in recent years, FWP has backfilled with money it gets from a federal tax shared with states from the sale of guns and ammunition.

“We don’t know how long that will last,” said FWP director Jeff Hagener.

State, federal lands

FWP partially agreed with the audit that it should obtain and document approval from federal agencies when including federal lands in Block Management Areas. The agency already works with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation on state lands.

To reach that goal, FWP is requiring the signature of BLM and DNRC supervisors acknowledging the BMAs.

FWP did not agree with the audit that access cannot legally be refused to state and federal lands that do not have access restrictions and that adjoin Block Management Areas.

According to FWP, “a landowner in the Block Management Program may prohibit the use of his or her property for accessing adjacent private or public property … as a basic tenet of private property rights.”

FWP also did not agree with the audit that hunters on Block Management Areas did not need to notify state land lessees prior to hunting, and that the agency should coordinate with DNRC to include isolated state lands in Block Management Areas.

Compensation

FWP also decided that to clarify its rules for compensation landowners would only receive payment for those hunting, not for those who are scouting, helping a friend retrieve game, gopher hunters, anglers or trappers.

In order to receive compensation for permission slips, landowners must collect the hunter’s name and either their mailing address or automatic licensing system number.

The PL/PW Council is reviewing measures to improve the Block Management Program to make recommendations to the Legislature. But so far they’ve had trouble finding problems other than accusations that the properties are overhunted — despite hunters reporting high satisfaction with BMAs; the loss of Block Management Program participants as older landowners die or sell their property — a 3 to 5 percent attrition rate; the difficulty in recruiting new participants; and a need for more FWP personnel on the ground during hunting seasons.

“I’m trying to figure out where the hell the complaints are,” Perry said.

Last hunting season, the Block Management Program enrolled more than 6.3 million acres of private land, which also provided access to more than 376,000 acres of state land, 17,000 acres of national forest and 802,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management property.

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

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