Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has reportedly shelved its fisheries director.

FWP leadership reportedly put Fisheries Chief Eileen Ryce on administrative leave last week. Sources inside FWP said Ryce was publicly escorted out of FWP headquarters in Helena on Friday. Sources asked that they not be identified out of fear of retaliation.

FWP has given no reason for putting Ryce on administrative leave. Sources inside FWP said Ryce gave awards to her staff a few months ago at a fisheries division meeting. FWP leadership then threatened Ryce with disciplinary action, calling the awards discriminatory. However, it’s unclear if FWP leadership followed through.

FWP refused requests for comment.

Ryce is not the first FWP chief that the current administration has put on administrative leave, and in every previous case, the employee ends up “retiring.”

In October, FWP Diretor Dustin Temple put Mike Volesky, FWP chief of operations, on administrative leave. FWP claimed it was a personnel matter so no information was provided on justification.

In summer 2022, FWP leadership placed chief warden Dave Loewen on administrative leave, again with no explanation. In late August 2022, Loewen told the Montana State News Bureau that he was placed on administrative leave “after bringing forth to the Director’s Office my concerns of false rumors being spread, defamatory comments being made, and inappropriate communication being held between management-level staff and field staff.”

At that time, Loewen anticipated returning to his position but in November, FWP Director Hank Worsech sent an email to agency staff announcing that Loewen would be retiring.

In January 2022, Region 2 Wildlife Chief Mike Thompson retired on short notice. Worech gave him a 20-day suspension, but Thompson did briefly return to work as FWP was coordinating a significant reorganization of its elk and deer hunting seasons and districts.

“My suspension cited ‘failure to adequately supervise my direct reports’ and ‘breaches of chain of command.’ I didn’t know we were at war. People who know me would — and have — recognized my misdeeds as being well within the norm of my 41 years of FWP service. I am not hard to correct. A direct conversation would’ve sufficed,” Thompson wrote in a Jan. 12 Missoulian letter.

Many were concerned in May 2022 when Worsech assigned Wildlife Chief Ken McDonald to develop the new habitat lease program. They argued that McDonald was responsible for several critical duties that needed his attention and that any one of several lower-level employees could have handled the job. They were worried it represented a dismantling of the wildlife division. McDonald is still the Wildlife Chief.

Last fall, the legislative audit committee released a performance audit of FWP’s enforcement division. The audit found communication issues, low morale and a lack of trust between the FWP’s wardens and the leadership in Helena. Temple concurred with all the findings. The Legislative Audit Division is supposed to follow up on the audit within a year so another report is due soon. Also the Audit Division is starting work on a new audit of FWP’s human resources division.

Employees inside FWP say that the findings on low morale and lack of trust aren’t limited to the law enforcement division. During the past three years, many experienced FWP employees have either left the department or been asked to leave. The brain-drain has been to the detriment of the state’s fish, wildlife and sportsmen and women.

In October, FWP Human Resources Manager Jeff Kirksey told the Legislative Audit Committee that FWP was following the warden audit with an overall “culture survey” that was sent out to all FWP employees in November. Montana State University business professor Amber Raile is processing the responses, and FWP has recently shown some initial results to FWP employees over three webinars.

Sources inside FWP say the results show that morale is low due to FWP leadership. They   suspect that FWP leadership might be using Ryce as a scapegoat, but the poor morale obviously extends beyond the fisheries division. To the contrary, the potential loss of Ryce has demoralized many in the fisheries division, employees say.

Ryce took over as fisheries chief in 2016 after having managed the Aquatic Invasive Species Program from 2004 to 2011, after which she took over the Hatchery Bureau. With her Scottish brogue and calm demeanor, she successfully presented many projects to the Legislature and the FWP commission over the years. She was a proponent of research and native fisheries but she also supported Montana’s anglers in preserving their favorite fishing spots and species.

In a 2017 interview with Montana Outdoors Magazine, Ryce said what an honor it was to have become the fisheries chief, following in the footsteps of Larry Peterman and Chris Hunter.

“One advantage, if you can call it that, of coming from outside Montana is that I continue to be amazed at the remarkable fisheries resources here. The anglers, landowners and fisheries biologists who came before us left behind some extraordinary fisheries for us to enjoy. Each day, I’m amazed and appreciative of that, and it makes me all the more determined to conserve those fisheries for future generations,” Ryce said in 2017.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at