As Greg Gianforte prepares to assume the role of Montana’s governor, he’s selecting state agency directors using advisory committees that some say appear to prioritize private interests over conservation or true collaboration.
On Monday, a Gianforte press release published the names of a dozen people who would review candidates to fill the role of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks director. Martha Williams took over as FWP director after Jeff Haganer left in 2017 but is unlikely to remain. Gianforte promised reduced government and regulation, and changes in leadership during his campaign.
Hunting and conservation organizations were disappointed that the advisory council lacks anyone involved in wildlife conservation. Meanwhile, the committee has at least three big-time outfitters who market to high-paying out-of-state customers.
Cheryl Arnaud co-owns a trophy hunting business with her husband, Rod Arnaud, a past president of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association. John Way, a MOGA outfitter, is the president of the Ennis Chamber of Commerce and sits on the Montana Board of Outfitters. He has led outfitters in opposition to FWP’s recent proposal to regulate use on the over-populated Madison River.
Chuck Rein is MOGA’s current president and in 2019, he supported legislation that would have paved the way toward closing public roads in the Crazy Mountains near Big Timber. Back in the early 2000s, he led the Montana Stockgrowers Association in demanding a greater say in wildlife management and pushing for leaving hunting seasons open until a species quota was filled. In 2002, the Montana Wildlife Federation said the proposal would “privitize public wildlife” and destroy the North American model, where hunters’ dollars pay for wildlife conservation.
Calls made to the MOGA headquarters were not returned.
Finally, the release cites committee member Matt Lumley as the National Trappers Association vice president without mentioning he’s also the regional director of Big Game Forever, a Utah-based anti-predator hunting organization co-founded by Don Peay, who has referred to the North American Model as socialism. Lumley’s presence worries advocates of grizzly bears, wolves and other large predators.
That concerns organizations that support regular, public-land hunters, such as the Montana Wildlife Federation and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
John Sullivan of Missoula-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said the committee doesn’t have much balance. Sullivan is a former guide, so he’s not saying the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association shouldn’t be represented. But it shouldn’t dominate, Sullivan said.
In addition to members of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, the committee includes Republican state politicians and sportsmen’s groups that popularize hunting and trapping but do little to conserve species. Former Phillips County Commissioner Leslie Robinson was Gianforte’s 2016 gubernatorial running mate.
“The idea here is to select the next director of FWP. Their job is to manage the fish and wildlife owned by all Montanans, not just the private landowners who do a very good job of monetizing the public resource,” Sullivan said. “If you’re talking about balance and you put Kerry White on there but you don’t put anybody who is part of a organization that is in favor of protecting public access for the regular guy, you’re playing your cards. You can see what the intent is of this committee.”
Kerry White runs Citizens for Balanced Use, a motorized-vehicle group, and is a state legislator who sided with American Lands Council president Jennifer Fielder in backing public land transfer. Calls to White requesting comment were not returned.
Chris Marchion of the Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club said FWP needs a knowledgable, balanced leader because the agency helps retain the character of Montana. FWP protects critical habitat, encourages hunter access through landowner programs like Block Management and brings groups together to try to improve hunter-landowner relations.
Most of all, it protects a public trust – fish and wildlife – for the public, not just a few individuals or businesses.
“Look at all the wildlife issues that are significant to this state – grizzly bears, wolves, bull trout, grayling, sage grouse – where we’ve made all this progress to keep or get species off the Endangered Species list. You look at all these sensitive issues where there are these delicate balances. Where are the people who have spent decades working on these issues that are critical to our state?” Marchion said. “If you don’t have constructive, knowledgeable voices in here, then you’re going to drive people far apart. And the stakes are really high. We haven’t solved all these problems.”
Montana has been recognized nationally for supporting a wide range of collaborative efforts that have kept the state from lawsuits or from having to take extreme measures, Marchion said. But Gianforte’s first actions appear to show he isn’t interested in including a diverse cross-section of stakeholdrs.
“So now, create an environment that will lead to contention rather than constructive solutions, it is the wrong signal. And it will push this state backward,” Marchion said.
Montana Wildlife Federation Nick Gevock said his organization has been around for almost a century working with sportsmen, FWP and federal land agencies to find solutions for a variety of situations across the state. They could have added more of a conservation perspective to the committee.
To emphasize the importance of conservation to Montanans, Gevock pointed to the popularity and recent passage of Initiative 190, which directs tax money from marijuana sales to conservation programs.
“We look forward to engaging the governor on wildlife conservation issues. We want a seat at the table,” Gevock said.
Montana Conservation Voters political director Jake Brown issued a statement on Tuesday saying his organization was prepared to oppose legislation that attacks wildlife conservation or public land.
“FWP is tasked with protecting Montana’s public lands and wildlife, which is why it’s exceptionally disappointing to see Governor-Elect Gianforte’s transition team include public lands foes who value wealthy and politically connected landowners over everyday Montanans,” Brown said in a release.
Montana Trout Unlimited seems to be the only group that isn’t too disappointed.
Clayton Elliot, MTU conservation and government affairs director, said some of the committee members cause some concern, but he’s not worried about fish – “our finned friends” – because KC Walsh, Simms Fishing Products executive director, is on the committee and he’s also a Montana Trout Unlimited stewardship director.
Some anglers question Walsh’s intent since he’s primarily a businessman and donated more than $1,000 to Gianforte’s 2020 campaign. In fact, all of the committee members except for Ed Beall, Capital Sports and Western Wear owner, donated to Gianforte’s campaign, according to a survey of followthemoney.org.
Elliot said Walsh also has taken heat for his support of Sen. Steve Daines.
“He’s a long-time advocate for cold-water fisheries, he’s a good friend and a believer in the public trust doctrine of managing fish and wildlife for the benefit of the people. I think that’s the bright spot that we take away from that,” Elliot said. “My message to the transition team: we can put lists of names together. But the budget and the vision for the agency are the most important things. And I think the governor-elect has heard from Montanans that cold-water fisheries matter, that public access matters.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.