Montana sportsmen rally around rejected FWP commissioner

Andrew McKean (left) teaches hunter education classes for kids in the Glasgow area.

One more vote on Thursday signaled that Republican legislators intend to give certain landowners and outfitters priority over resident sportsmen and women when it comes to Fish, Wildlife & Parks decisions.

The most recent action occurred Thursday, when the Senate Fish and Game committee made another party-line vote, 7-4, against supporting FWP commissioner Andrew McKean for nomination to the rest of his term, which would run until Jan. 1, 2023.

Former Gov. Steve Bullock appointed McKean, a Glasgow resident, to the commission on Nov. 25 after Logan Brower resigned because he was moving out of the area.

On Tuesday, the Fish and Game committee heard nine people testify in support of McKean, including representatives of the Montana Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Montana Sportsmen Alliance and Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana. No one spoke in opposition.

“Through his work, I’ve seen an honest passion for conservation, both from a hunting and angling standpoint, as well as his ability to recognize the important role that landowners play within the state,” said Great Falls resident William Spahr on Tuesday. “Through his writings, I’ve also seen Mr. McKean demonstrate his ability to be open-minded and (be) willing to make honest attempts to understand viewpoints that differ from his own.”

McKean, an avid sportsman, has been a newspaper editor in Wolf Point, started editing “Fishing and Hunting News” in Helena in 1995, and finally became editor-in-chief of Outdoor Life Magazine. He owns property near the Milk River outside Glasgow where he’s been a coach and hunter-education and bowhunter instructor. He was the FWP Region 6 information officer for 6 years and helped found the Highline Sportsmen to promote conservation and dialogue between neighbors, sportsmen and landowners.

“We resolve issues based on personal relationships,” McKean said. “I do fret a little when that personal relationship becomes politicized. That divide is used to polarize people. But I tend to find my life is in the middle.”

But Thursday’s vote appears to indicate the Republicans want to polarize people. Ignoring citizen testimony, committee vice-chair Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, moved a do-not-pass for McKean.

Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, asked why the committee wouldn’t support such an ideal candidate. Committee chair Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux, said McKean was a last-minute Bullock appointment.

“The governor wants to have some change in philosophy, and he prefers to have somebody else. So that’s the route we’re going to go,” Hinebauch said.

McKean’s nomination still has to go to the Senate Floor for a vote. But without committee support or without a huge number of sportsmen lobbying their senators, Senate Republicans are likely to go along with the committee and back Gov. Greg Gianforte’s wishes.

“Now, the Senate committee’s only concern seems to be what the governor thinks and not what the people think. Our fear is the commission will do the same thing with the new appointees,” said Backcountry Hunters and Anglers spokesman John Sullivan.

A bill was submitted for review in mid-January that lists Leslie Robinson of Dodson for the position that McKean holds, giving the appearance that it was a foregone conclusion that McKean would be gone.

Robinson is a landowner and politician, not a sportswoman. She belongs to the Montana Stockgrowers Association, is a Phillips County commissioner and represents Montana in the National Association of Counties.

After Gianforte met Robinson at a 2015 United Property Owners of Montana conference, he took her on as his 2016 gubernatorial running mate. More recently, Gianforte assigned her to his advisory committee to select the new FWP director.

KC Walsh, Simms Fishing Products executive director, was also on the advisory committee and is another one of Gianforte’s nominees for the FWP commission.

Gianforte’s other two nominees are Brian Cebull, a Safari Club International board member and oil and gas executive, and Pat Tabor, a retired California H&R Block accountant recently turned outfitter. The Senate must confirm all commission appointees except Patrick Byorth, who was confirmed in 2019.

For all the hunting, fishing and conservation qualifications that McKean has, some sportsmen are asking why he’s being voted out while Tabor is being supported. The new philosophy appears to be business first, putting Montana’s fish and wildlife for sale from the entitled few.

Sullivan said Tabor is the opposite of McKean.

“Pat Tabor made it clear that his mission will be to ‘right the wrongs that FWP has imposed upon the private landowner,’ really pitting public land sportsmen against the landowners, blatantly, in an obvious and scary way,” Sullivan said.

“Outfitting is an honorable profession and they provide a valuable service. But they’re a service provider, not a product seller,” said Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock. “They should have a seat at the table but they don’t get veto power over every aspect of fish and wildlife management.”

Sportsmen point to five FWP citations issued to Tabor’s Swan Mountain Outfitters in 2013 for illegally using state land and several complaints sent to the U.S. Forest Service regarding Tabor’s outfitters dumping manure from his corrals and other garbage on public land.

The citations and complaints were obtained through Freedom of Information requests by Montana blogger Kathryn QannaYahu in 2016.

Tabor also broke outfitters and guides rules by failing to submit accurate Board of Outfitter records.

Notably, one of the several outfitter-friendly bills, Senate Bill 275, would change outfitter and guides rules so outfitters don’t have to turn in annual reports or identify their clients. It would also remove public oversight from the Board of Outfitters.

County attorneys must prosecute all FWP citations or arrests, which they don’t always do or they impose light punishment, even in poaching cases. Lake County attorney Molly Owens asked the judge to dismiss Tabor’s citations.

Calls to Tabor’s FWP commissioner phone number went straight to a message that said voicemail hadn’t been set up yet. Emails sent requesting comment went unanswered.

McKean’s full hearing isn’t scheduled yet so sportsmen are still hoping to sway the Senate.

“We’ll let our membership know to contact their senators,” Sullivan said. “Otherwise we’re going to have a stacked commission of people who are a bunch of yes-men to industry and politicians with agendas.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.