Montana Senate confirms 2 FWP commissioners; Fielder blocks 2 others

Tim Aldrich

For the past two weeks, Tim Aldrich didn’t know if he’d be allowed to go to work on Thursday. He breathed a sigh of relief late Wednesday, when it appeared the Montana Senate will finally confirm him as the Fish, Wildlife & Parks commissioner for the Missoula region.

“I looked up (the Senate) schedule on Tuesday, and they didn’t have anything scheduled. Nobody knew what was going to happen,” Aldrich said.

Aldrich and three other commission nominees had been in limbo after appearing before the Senate Fish and Game Committee on April 11 to answer questions about their qualifications. Then, even though the committee is supposed to meet every Tuesday and Thursday, it met only once more on April 16 and took no action.

Early on, the Senate Fish and Game Committee raised eyebrows after chair Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, didn’t hold seven meetings this session and was absent for a few, leaving the gavel to her vice chair. The committee met only three times in January, causing bills to pile up, awaiting hearings.

A frustrated Sen. Jill Cohenour criticized Fielder’s lack of attendance, saying it reduced the committee’s ability “to allow the public to have as much input as possible on the policy.”

“It’s really a concern that we had bills and could have had hearings during the time you were absent from the committee,” Cohenour said.

That concern lingered throughout the session and ramped up as it appeared that the legislative session could end as early as Thursday. The Senate must confirm any nominees before legislators leave. If nominees weren’t confirmed, the law wouldn’t allow them to continue serving as commissioners. Gov. Steve Bullock would have to appoint four other people to serve until the next Legislature convened.

Some saw the foot-dragging as political maneuvering. By Wednesday morning, people were wondering who was supposed to show up for the FWP Commission meeting on Thursday. Aldrich said he planned to be there because the Legislature was unlikely to adjourn before the commission meeting started.

As a few senators were considering blasting the nominations out of committee, Fielder finally called a meeting for 11 a.m. on Wednesday, and the committee approved all four nominees. The committee also approved five people nominated for the state parks board who had been waiting since their hearing back on Feb. 21.

It was good news for Aldrich, although he didn’t want to celebrate until the whole Senate votes. It wouldn’t be the first time nominees were rejected at the last minute. And it turned out not to be the last.

With his degree in zoology from the University of Montana and experience as a Gallatin National Forest administrator, Aldrich makes a qualified commissioner. As an avid hunter, he’s also served on FWP advisory committees, represented public hunters on the Montana Board of Outfitters, and held leadership positions in the Montana Wildlife Federation.

For that reason, Aldrich was tapped as commissioner two years ago because the 2017 Legislature shot down two of Bullock’s nominees, including Greg Tollefson, former executive director of Five Valleys Land Trust in Missoula.

So Aldrich and Shane Colton of Billings have already served two years on the commission but were never confirmed.

The Senate Fish and Game Committee also rejected Logan Brower of Scobey in 2017, but he was later confirmed for two years by the full Senate. He hoped to serve another four-year term.

Nominated to represent landowner interests, Commissioner Richard Stuker of Chinook was the only 2017 nominee to receive overwhelming legislative support.

This year’s fourth nominee, Patrick Byorth of Bozeman, would be the only new commissioner, intended to replace Dan Vermillion who stepped down after 12 years.

On Wednesday, the 10 Senate Fish and Game Committee members unanimously supported Aldrich and Colton, but three, including Fielder, opposed Brower and Byorth. Fielder didn’t like that Brower supported mandatory trapper education, and Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, considered Byorth’s history as an attorney and working with Trout Unlimited as a conflict of interest.

Even so, it appeared all four would make it to Thursday’s FWP Commission meeting. But in a shocking move, Fielder sent Aldrich’s and Colton’s nominations to the Senate floor while withholding the other nominations.

On Wednesday evening, the full Senate approved Aldrich and Colton with a first vote of 47-3. They still needed a second vote, but with a likely 11th-hour confirmation, they’ll serve until 2021.

Not so for Brower and Byorth.

Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, made a motion to bring Brower and Byorth’s nominations to the floor since they passed committee with a 70 percent margin. Fielder opposed the effort.

“This didn’t come out of committee with ease. There was some consternation, some concern about each of these nominees. I would ask you to oppose,” Fielder said.

The Senate refused, 28-22, to bring the nominees to a vote.

It is uncertain what will happen to Thursday’s commission meeting with only three confirmed commissioners. Aldrich said the meeting will happen because they’ll have a quorum, but he was unsure what decisions might be delayed or who the other two commissioners might be.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.