HELENA — Despite initial concerns over the large number of legislative bills taking aim at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the agency and its commission seem to be coming through the session relatively unscathed, FWP Director Joe Maurier said.
On Thursday, he told the five-member FWP Commission that even with about 100 bills introduced that addressed the management of bison and wolves, land acquisition, stream access, hunting and other sporting and wildlife issues, most haven’t been approved by both the House and the Senate, and some that did were vetoed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
“Considering everything that has been thrown at us on all those major themes, I believe we will end up in pretty good shape,” Maurier said. “When all is said and done, assuming the bills out there are amended appropriately or vetoed, I think we will be OK.”
He noted that on Wednesday, Schweitzer vetoed House Bill 252, which would have given counties oversight in the movement of bison, as well as House Bill 272, which would eliminate FWP’s ability to use hunting access fees to acquire land.
“We probably still have at least 16 vetoes to give to the governor,” he said.
Other bills that were tabled in committee, missed the transmittal date or otherwise failed included one that would require the commission to establish hunting season quotas for lions and wolves that prevent deer, elk and antelope populations from decreasing beyond sustainable levels; one that reworks elk archery licenses; and one that would take a portion of hunting license fees and give them to the Department of Livestock to pay ranchers for losses due to wolf predation.
Maurier said that during a committee hearing on Senate Bill 400, which would have authorized the sale of 2,000 nonresident big game licenses for use in wilderness areas — a licensing activity typically undertaken by the commission after lengthy discussion — the bill was tabled.
“I told the committee the pluses and minuses, and this is what the department and commission deals with every week,” Maurier said. “It was a 10-10 vote, and I think they realize it’s not easy. I think they get that over there, but of course there’s lots of pressure in all sorts of areas and that makes it hard.”
Maurier said that while the Fish, Wildlife and Parks budget was cut by 5 percent, the overall FWP budget may actually be more than what was requested due to money earmarked to fight invasive species. The majority of the department’s funding comes from hunting and fishing licenses, which is why the fish and wildlife budgets weren’t subject to the overall 5 percent budget cuts other agencies undertook.
“We’re still trying to figure out how it will all work, but overall our budget is in pretty good shape, and there are still bills out there that could add some revenue to the department,” Maurier said.
FWP Commission Chairman Bob Ream, who has attended a number of committee hearings, said for him the take-home message is that they need to better explain their reasoning when making decisions, especially in light of Senate Bill 255, which sets criteria for the commission.
“I guess the greatest criticism I hear is our justification for decisions we make. We need to be careful; if it’s not part of the motion presented to us or in the cover sheet, we do (need to) try to set the reasons for our decision,” Ream said. “Often we put the resource first, but ... we can manage for trophy elk or the maximum number harvested, and those don’t necessarily agree.
“Either way, it’s a sound biological decision, but it comes down to social reasons as well, and I think we need to make clear what our decision is.”