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Game wardens

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks officials are seeking a change in how the department's funding for game wardens is allotted.

If legislators want Montana game wardens to spend more time working with landowners there’s a better way than the current funding system for officers.

That was one of the messages Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials delivered to a meeting of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural Resources and Transportation on Friday in Helena. The committee will be responsible for crafting FWP’s 2020-21 budget.

During the last session, legislators increased the federal portion of funding for warden salaries from 7 to 30 percent. Those federal dollars, from a grant program known as Pittman-Robertson, come with strings attached, namely that FWP law enforcement must now spend 30 percent of their time on wildlife-related issues.

The allowable wildlife projects range from taking down or putting up fences on wildlife management areas to helping out at chronic wasting disease or aquatic invasive species check stations.

“I have no doubt, based on discussions with warden folks, that their time was spent on eligible activities,” said Ken McDonald, chief of FWP’s wildlife division. “The question is more about the quality and quantity on the wildlife side and what doesn’t get done on the warden side."

Broken down, about four months of each law enforcement officer’s time in a year has been diverted to wildlife projects. Across the department, officials said the total is equivalent to 30 full-time wardens. There are 100 wardens spread across the state.

“We’ve found ourselves in a state of reactive law enforcement rather than proactive,” said Dave Loewen, chief of law enforcement for FWP.

As examples, he said the change has resulted in a 32 percent decline in contacts with anglers, a 46 percent decline in fishing access site patrols and a 22 percent drop in boater and water safety contacts. The biggest drop — 82 percent — was in license fraud investigations, he said, which since 2013 generated $17.5 million in collections.

Unsaid at the meeting was that when the Legislature stepped in two years ago FWP’s enforcement division had been wrestling with discord in its ranks — what some department officials had previously labeled “cops vs. cowboys.”

In essence, officers in the division were divided over whether wardens’ duties should be more police-like versus an older warden tradition of being more wildlife crime-oriented. When Loewen was eventually appointed the new chief, following legal challenges of the hiring process that displaced a newly appointed chief, he was seen as being more cop-like.

Legislators stepped into the fray saying the new funding would delay an increase in hunting and fishing licenses, one of the main funding sources for FWP. Others, however, saw the move as an end-run around FWP officials to keep wardens more cowboy-like than cop.

If that’s the case, the funding change seems to have worked. But it’s also created a lot of paperwork, scheduling headaches and fear among FWP enforcement officials that an error could jeopardize all of the agency’s federal funding.

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Going into the second year of funding under the new guidelines, FWP director Martha Williams said her management colleagues think there is a way to achieve the Legislature’s goals of increased federal funding for law enforcement without it being so difficult for the department to track and fulfill the attached federal requirements.

“We could potentially get to the intent — save license money — but focus more on projects,” she explained.

That would ease some of the paperwork and scheduling hassles now weighing down wardens and their supervisors.

“I think we can work to be more efficient if it weren’t a prescriptive percentage,” she said, referring to the 30 percent requirement.

Game warden Rick Schmauch, an 18-year veteran in Dillon, said the new funding mechanism has created stress for officers who are under pressure to make sure it works. He said he’s also spent a lot of time explaining the new requirements to the public he serves.

“All of the game wardens would prefer to be enforcing game laws,” rather than doing wildlife work or police-style work, said Sam Christiansen, who represents the warden’s labor union.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.