A Thompson Falls Republican wants more commissioners on the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission.

On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, argued in front of the House Fish, Wildlife & Parks committee for his bill increasing the size of the FWP commission by two to a total of seven.

House Bill 163 would create one commissioner for each of FWP’s seven administrative regions. Representation would change in the western part of the state where Commission District 1 covers mostly FWP regions 1 and 2. So two commissioners would replace the one under HB 163. Similarly, commission district 5 covers much of FWP regions 5 and 7.

Six people rose to support the bill, including representatives of Trout Unlimited, Walleyes Unlimited, the Montana Trappers Association and the Montana Wildlife Federation.

Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, supported the bill saying elk are overpopulated in the eastern part of the state but not in some western districts and he blamed that on the lack of representation in Region 1.

“We don’t get the response we need from the commission to treat the area differently,” Loge said.

The FWP commission votes on recommendations from FWP, and most of the recommendation are based on the science-based management decisions of field biologists tempered with sportsmen’s input. So no commissioner can propose actions based solely on the demands of his constituents.

Gov. Greg Gianforte’s nominee for Commission District 1, Pat Tabor, lives in FWP Region 1.

Five people spoke in opposition, including representatives of Footloose Montana, Wolves of the Rockies and Trap Free Montana.

Whitefish resident Shelley Coldiron said that after starting three biotech companies, she opposes the bill for business reasons.

Republicans say they want smaller government. Gianforte campaigned on a promise to freeze state spending. So Fielder’s bill flies in the face of the Republican platform, increasing both the size of government and spending, Coldiron said.

The fiscal note accompanying the bill shows adding two commissioners would have a direct cost of more than $12,000, taken out of sportsmen’s license money. But Coldiron said that doesn’t consider the extra work required of FWP staff to work with two more commissioners. Plus, there’s been no push at the grassroots level for more commissioners.

“What’s I’m concerned about is the lack of justification,” Coldiron said. “This needs to be carried in the state’s budget year after year.”

KC York of Trap Free Montana said she could relate to proponents’ claims of feeling ignored because wildlife advocates and non-consumptive users feel the same way. York said if more commissioners are added, one of the commissioners should represent wildlife needs just as one commissioner currently must represent livestock producers.

She also pointed out the current system provides continuity and is potentially less political because the governor selects three commissioners at the start of his term and the other two in the middle of his term. So two commissioners overlap each governor. But Fielder’s bill would allow the governor to select all seven at once. Or this year, since two commissioners have two years to go in their terms, five new commissioners would be assigned.

“While on the basis itself, it makes sense with seven regions, our concern is this would allow the appointment of five new members, creating an inequitable potential stacking and a bias, negating the whole basis for staggering of appointees,” York said.

Rep. Neil Duram asked Fielder how long the commission has had five members. But Fielder couldn’t answer, having moved to Montana in 2007 after retiring from the Wenatchee Chelan Public Utility District where he worked for 25 years.

It turns out the answer is 100 years. The 1921 Legislature organized the commission into five districts, and no one has asked for a change until now.

In addition, the Public Service Commission also has only five districts. Increasing the number of FWP commissioners could set a precedent for require more PSC commissioners.

Legislative Research Analyst Hope Stockwell said the bill could have a legal problem. The current boundaries of the commission districts are defined in statute. But Fielder’s bill states only that the new boundaries align with the FWP region boundaries. That potentially creates some circular logic and unlawful delegation of authority, because commissioners have the authority to set the region boundaries and therefore they could define the boundaries of their own authority, kind of like gerrymandering.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.