Increasing the number of commissioners on the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission from five to seven would add both better representation and clarity to hunters and anglers, supporters of a bill to do that said Tuesday.
But opponents of House Bill 163 argued several points, from the additional cost of adding commissioners to whether the makeup of the commission excluded recreationists such as wildlife watchers.
The governor-appointed and Senate-confirmed commission is the oversight board for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. It is one of the highest profile nonelected bodies in the state, routinely tackling hot-button issues ranging from hunting, fishing and trapping regulations to land acquisitions and conservation easements for wildlife.
The bill was brought to the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls. Commissioners currently represent multiple counties that make up five districts, but Fielder and supporters of the bill believe that stretches commissioners too thin given the wide variety of landscapes and wildlife in the state.
Under an expanded commission, representation would shift to FWP administrative regions. For example, one commissioner would cover west-central Montana’s Region 2 with its office in Missoula, while another commissioner would represent southeastern Montana’s Region 7’s with its office in Miles City.
Currently, commissioner districts may overlap portions of as many as four administrative regions, Fielder told the committee.
“House Bill 163 would ensure that each Fish, Wildlife & Parks region, with its unique biological issues, concerns and priorities, can be better represented by a commissioner that resides in that region and is closely aligned with that region and are closely aligned with the issues that are specific to that regional office,” Fielder said.
“While I balk at growing government, I do endorse giving sportsmen and sportswomen the best representation possible.”
The bill saw support from a number of organizations that felt the change would be beneficial.
“It’s wonderful to see a commonsense bill presented to the Legislature,” said Bob Gilbert with Walleyes Unlimited of Montana, noting that while some Montana regions are not heavily populated, they have unique requirements and demands for fish and wildlife.
FWP’s administrative regions are already familiar to many hunters and anglers, said Nick Gevock with the Montana Wildlife Federation, and the size and diversity of current commissioner districts means huge and often very different areas a commissioner must try to represent.
Montana Trout Unlimited, the Montana Trapper’s Association and Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, also came out in support.
Opposition came from trapping opponents, wolf advocates and citizens concerned about additional spending. The bill’s fiscal note estimates additional commissioners costing about $12,000 per year.
Marc Cooke with Wolves of the Rockies testified that the bill both made little fiscal sense but also did not allow for representation from those who enjoy wildlife but do not hunt, fish or trap.
“What it does it is stacks the deck in favor of the consumptive community: hunting and fishing,” he said.
Because the current commission law directs that at least one commissioner be a livestock producer, KC York with Trap Free Montana Public Lands echoed Cooke’s sentiment, saying that a “nonconsumptive” user should also receive representation.
Stephen Capra with Footloose Montana, a group opposed to trapping, said the bill should be considered in the context of other proposed legislation that would increase the hunting and trapping of wolves. There has been no “outcry” to alter the commission’s makeup, he said, and in the context of a number of proposed bills aimed at expanding wolf hunting and trapping, Capra saw HB 163 as an attempt to create a “veto-proof” majority in furtherance of those policies.
Others opposed to the bill did not feel the $12,000 figure would be adequate to fund the additional commissioners, nor that the state should take on additional spending.
The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.