Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Partly due to an ongoing lawsuit, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wants to eliminate a decades-old rule requiring the department to consult with citizen organizations on its projects and responsibilities.

On Friday, FWP will take verbal comment on the elimination of a rule that requires the department to maintain liaison with citizen organizations active in wildlife and sportsmen’s issues.

Written in 1976, the rule says staff will participate formally or informally with various groups, including “Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Wilderness Association, Audubon Society, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Sierra Club, Environmental Information Center, Northern Rockies Action Group, various state and local outfitter and guide organizations, local unaffiliated rod and gun clubs, or any other citizen organization.”

The Feb. 8 release announcing Friday’s meeting said FWP wants to repeal the rule, because “it is archaic and no longer reflects how the commission or the department engages with the public in decision-making processes.”

At first blush, the repeal might appear to be an attempt to reduce public participation in the department’s decisions.

Jim Vashro, a retired FWP regional fisheries manager, said FWP manages a public trust - wildlife - for all citizens, so it needs all the communication tools it can get. He sees the rule as important to maintaining the exchange of ideas with the various groups and building understanding and support for proposals from both sides.

“It’s critical that (FWP staff) engage with the people who use the resource,” Vashro said. “Communication is always key. The department would probably still do communication (if the rule is repealed), but it’s nice having that ARM rule just in case something happens.”

During the past few years, there have been several examples of proposals that the department had to walk back because it didn’t ask for input from sportsmen first. For example, the commission had to reverse a 2022 decision to put a daily limit on the number of kokanee caught in Georgetown Lake after fishermen protested.

Another example was when hunters pushed back against a December 2021 proposal to reduce by half the number of special either-sex elk permits and restrict them to public land in eight elk districts in eastern Montana that are over population objectives. During the commission meeting, more than 40 hunters from various groups spoke against the proposal, which many suspected had a connection to the United Property Owners of Montana, a small but deep-pocketed private-property-rights group.

Some concerns about limited public information and input were validated when, during an October 2023 court settlement of a lawsuit alleging that the FWP commission lacked transparency, FWP attorneys acknowledged that the commission’s secretive practices constituted constitutional violations of public participation and the public’s right to know.

The final decree required the commission to attend training on open-meeting laws, post all public comments on proposals, and use only public-issued email addresses and telephones for commission business.

“It just shows that people care about how decisions are made. Without the rule, (FWP) could merely listen to one group, just make a decision, and there’d be no recourse for the other groups,” Vashro said. “Now I agree that, more and more, they use online resources, and in many cases, that’s a good way to meet. But it doesn’t promote good conversation - it’s kind of a one-sided deal.”

But some sportsmen’s groups are not so sure that the rule is still needed. Some say that the rule doesn’t keep FWP from listening to just one group. And now, there are so many more organizations and diverse demands in Montana than what existed in 1976 that interacting with them all is almost impossible. But one group in particular has complained that FWP violated the rule because it hasn’t interacted with them: the United Property Owners of Montana.

Following the previously mentioned December 2021 meeting where resident hunters helped defeat the elk tag proposal, the United Property Owners of Montana sued FWP and the FWP commission in April 2022. They alleged that FWP has failed to keep the elk population under control and that the FWP commission made an unlawful decision in February 2022 when it voted to maintain a limit on the number of hunting permits in nine eastern Montana hunting districts, all of which surround the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

In June 2022, a coalition of Montana hunting and conservation groups filed to intervene on behalf of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks against the United Property Owners of Montana. The coalition includes Missoula’s Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, Helena Hunters and Anglers, Montana Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Montana Bowhunters Association, Montana Wildlife Federation, Public Land Water Access Association and Skyline Sportsmen.

The case has moved slowly since then, although oral arguments are finally slated for the end of the month in Fergus County. One of the claims that the United Property Owners of Montana has made in the lawsuit is that FWP staff have never attended one of their meetings, therefore it violated the rule.

If the rule is repealed, that claim becomes moot. And it avoids the risk that other groups would challenge the department with similar claims. Some sportsmen see value in that and dismiss concerns about any loss of communication, saying that groups can still reach out to department staff or submit public comments, as long as FWP adheres to Montana’s public participation laws. Only time would tell if the department or Montanans would notice a difference.

FWP did not respond to requests for comment. FWP paralegal Regina Reynolds has been scheduled to conduct the online hearing on Friday at 10 a.m.  FWP will accept written comments until March 25.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at