Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) In another move to reorganize Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, wildlife and fisheries research programs are being shuffled from their divisions to a position directly under the Director’s Office.

In mid-May, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks research staff learned of the change but don’t know why it’s necessary or how it would be implemented, according to sources in the department. One of the official reasons given by the Director’s Office was “consolidation of research/ science functions to promote cross-pollination among staff and work across programs more.”

FWP spokesman Greg Lemon declined to comment. Other sources didn’t want their identities revealed for fear of losing their jobs.

Prior to the change, the wildlife research program fell under the Wildlife Division managed by Ken McDonald, and the fisheries research program fell under the Fisheries Division managed by Eileen Ryce. Both divisions reported to Chief of Staff Quentin Kujala.

Now, the research programs will become their own division under the Director’s Office, likely reporting to a new administrator, Chief of Conservation Policy, sources say. Some regional biologists have been told they will likely be moved.

One explanation given for the change is that some agencies in other states use this type of organization. But Jeff Herbert, a retired 34-year veteran of FWP and former wildlife research chief, said some state wildlife departments do better research than others and he doesn’t think FWP should change its research process.

“Our wildlife research unit has been one of the top in the country because of the marriage between management and applied research. Montana and Idaho have had effective, long-term wildlife research programs that are solidly management-directed and differ from other states where this proposed model is being taken from,” Herbert said. “When I was in the research chief position, we developed a process for prioritizing work that needed to be done. There was always a close connection within the (wildlife) division. The work was done with regional input, had regional by-in, and I think they’ve continued to use that until now.”

Meanwhile, those agencies that have pulled research programs out of their related divisions sometimes haven’t done well, Herbert said.

For example, in 1993, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wanted to combine all Interior's natural resources research in one science agency “that could survey plants and animals to identify endangered species before they became ‘train wrecks’ like the northern spotted owl,” according to a January 2005 BioScience Journal article. So researchers were pulled out of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and put under a new agency, the National Biological Survey.

Two years later, it was folded into the U.S. Geological Survey, and the results were mixed because the two agencies didn’t work well for about a decade. In addition, when Congress allocated funding to the USGS, it underfunded projects on endangered species requested by the Fish and Wildlife Service and devoted more money to water and geology research than to biological and ecological research.

Such changes often lead to, or are prompted by, changes in government funding.

In FWP, local district biologists are kept busy doing inventories and surveys of game populations and not so much research. But under the previous structure, they occasionally got to participate in the landmark projects developed by the research program. In the past, that’s allowed FWP to invest in important long-term studies - sometimes lasting a decade - of long-lived species like deer, elk and bears, Herbert said. Will that change under the new structure?

“My other understanding is, as of last year, there had been strong support from the Director’s Office for moving research projects forward. So why is this happening? Why can’t you use the existing structure with better communication to coordinate across the divisions on topics of interest?” Herbert said. “To me that makes more sense than reorganizing and putting this under the Directors Office, which to me has much more of a political overtone to it, whether that’s intended or not.”

Since February, the Director’s Office itself has seen a change. Hank Worsech, who was confirmed as FWP director by the 2021 Legislature, announced Friday that he is stepping down. Worsech has been on medical leave since February, during which time Deputy Director Dustin Temple served as acting director. On Friday Governor Greg Gianforte appointed Temple to succeed Worsech as director.

Had Worsech stepped down in February while the Legislature was still in session, a new director would have had to be confirmed by the Senate.

The research change came about under Temple’s leadership. Herbert is concerned about what other changes in FWP may follow.

“Why does there appear to be this continued effort to reduce the presence of these divisions in decision-making? My concern is there’s been a real overt attempt to diminish the divisions, especially fish and wildlife. Ken (MacDonald) and Eileen (Ryce) are still there, but they’re in a much diminished role. I think that’s very much a control-over-power-based approach,” Herbert said. “What’s frustrating to regional staff is that things get rolled out without really having the thorough kind of discussion that creates better buy-in. This is top-down. Even if this is well-intended, it’s really quite heavy handed.”

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