KALISPELL — The director of the state wildlife agency, Jeff Hagener, has begun a review of the agency's recent land acquisitions, holdings and management.
Gov. Steve Bullock requested the review, as well as a look at the agency's budget, its relationships with private landowners and a simplified licensing system.
The Fish, Wildlife and Parks land-acquisition process became an issue late last year when the agency bought nearly 3,000 acres along the Milk River in Hill County for $4.7 million amid complaints that it ignored public comment and moved too quickly. The land was purchased with Habitat Montana dollars, which come from fees for hunting licenses, and will be managed for hunting and fishing.
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation purchased an adjacent 1,500 acres to lease back to ranch owners for agricultural use. The lease fees will generate money for schools.
After the sale went through, several area ranchers protested by closing about 50,000 acres of land to hunting and fishing.
The 2013 Legislature passed a bill that would have required public scoping for large land acquisitions and required the agency to respond to comments. Bullock vetoed it.
A bill to require environmental impact statements for FWP land purchases died in the legislature.
Hagener said on Tuesday that he has been asked to "look at the holdings we have to make sure we are being good neighbors." The agency has purchase about 80,000 acres of land in the last few years.
Hagener said there would be a renewed emphasis on prioritizing projects for the agency, which has limited financial resources.
"We need to look at our financial stability in the organization," he said, noting that the licensing program also needs to be reviewed.
Bullock asked him to simplify a system that has 100 different types of licenses with money going to 60 different earmarked accounts.
"Do we need that many licenses?" Hagener asked. "Are the fees appropriate?"
The agency has seen a decline in license revenue as more hunters qualify for fee discounts at age 62. He said it may propose fee increases to the 2015 Legislature.
The state has increased opportunities for wolf hunting and trapping, and that trend could continue, Hagener said.
"We're looking to reduce wolf numbers from where they are now," Hagener said.