FWP Commissioner Bob Ream unexpectedly resigned Thursday afternoon, tearing up momentarily as he read a statement explaining how he felt he couldn’t get a fair hearing at next week’s confirmation hearing, but enjoyed his past four years on the commission.
Ream, who was first appointed to the commission by Gov. Brian Schweitzer four years ago and renominated by Gov. Steve Bullock earlier this year, said the partisan nature of the current legislature made him believe the confirmation hearing would be “a sham.”
“I choose not to waste my time on a sham hearing or subject myself to the senate confirmation process, which I believe would have a pre-determined, partisan outcome,” Ream said. “I will miss, and am extremely proud of my work during the past four years. I strived to find a balance on some of the most contentious issues this commission has faced.”
As commissioner, Ream participated in highly controversial decisions. Those included delisting gray wolves and setting hunting and trapping structures, as well as seasons, for them. He voted on how to handle brucellosis in elk, what to do with bison that migrate into Montana from Yellowstone National Park, and walleye management in Canyon Ferry, Hauser and Holter reservoirs.
But he believes it was his decision in land acquisitions — particularly the Milk River Ranch — that put a partisan target on his back.
“That was vociferously opposed by Sen. (John) Brenden and many others,” Ream said. “However, this action offered an additional 6,000 acres … we paid $4.7 million for it and it were criticized for that but the ranch was on the market for $12.75 million. Without the action we did there’s no doubt in my mind that sooner or later that place would be bought by some wealthy out-of-stater.”
The purchase drew the criticism of dozens of ranchers along the Hi-Line, who believed the Milk River Ranch was overpriced and claim that it was a sweetheart deal to bail out the owners. As a protest of that decision, as well as the movement of Yellowstone bison to Indian reservations in northeast Montana and the real or perceived impact of wolves on elk populations, in the past year ranchers said they pulled more than 100,000 acres from public access for hunting.
Earlier in the day at the regularly scheduled FWP Commission meeting, Ream noted that he had served eight sessions as a legislator and four years as a volunteer on the commission, but gave no indication of his intention to resign. He announced his decision at the end of the meeting, and made his final motion to adjourn.
“I have been incredibly impressed and convinced FWP is one of the best, if not the best, department in the country,” Ream added.
Gov. Bullock said that he’s disappointed Ream no longer will be serving on the commission, and that his expertise will be missed.
“As an educator, a legislator and a commissioner, Bob Ream has dedicated his life to public service and ensuring that Montana is a better place for the future generations,” Bullock said in a statement. “He’s been a powerful advocate for resident hunters and anglers and a tireless supporter for the rights of everyday Montanans to access public lands, rivers and streams.”
Tim Aldrich, the past president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, also was saddened by Reams’ decision to stop serving on the commission.
“As Dr. Bob Ream steps down from his position on the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, I and many thousands of Montanans owe him a debt of gratitude for his many contributions to the amazing public wildlife and fish and public lands and water resources they so often enjoy,” Aldrich wrote in a statement. “As an educator, a wildlife researcher, a legislator and most recently a commissioner, he has steadfastly supported and mentored many in the substance and application of all the parts of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.”
He added that Ream leaves a tremendous legacy, including his 28 years teaching as a wildlife professor and scientist at the University of Montana; ensuring public access to Montana’s rivers and streams; and the acquisition of thousands of acres of state-owned publicly accessible wildlife habitat.
FWP Commission Chairman Dan Vermillion said he only learned about Ream’s decision not to proceed with the confirmation process shortly before Thursday’s FWP Commission meeting. He said he was disappointed because he’ll miss Ream’s expertise, but having gone through a difficult confirmation hearing two years ago, Vermillion understood Ream’s reasoning.
“I wasn’t naïve enough to think the confirmation would be smooth sailing or easy, but I was surprised from the perspective that I thought he was a good commissioner and did a great job as chairman. He was exceptionally qualified,” Vermillion said. “I’m disappointed, but I understand why he did it. It’s not a fun process for anyone to go through.”
Vermillion now is the only incumbent on the five-member commission who has previously served; Bullock nominated Larry Wetsit, Richard Stuker and Mathew Tourlotte to fill positions vacated by Shane Colton, Rusty Stafne and Ron Moody. Vermillion said he expects Bullock will now nominate someone to replace Ream, but added that the three new commissioners did an excellent job at their first meeting Thursday.
“I was really impressed with the guys who showed up today; they did a great job and were totally prepared,” Vermillion said. “I think we will be fine and the commission will continue to do a good job. We have a lot of support from FWP staff.
“But it would be nice to have a few people up there with experience.”
Ream said he expects to stay involved in wildlife issues, but now will have more time to hunt, boat and ski.
“I’m available as a resource any time,” he told the commissioners. “I’m deeply humbled by the out-pouring of support I’ve have received from all over the state.”