The team tasked with finding a new leader for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks for governor-elect Greg Gianforte has ignored the state’s largest conservation groups.
Instead, the team is weighted toward agricultural and commercial interests and past critics of the agency.
The 12-member team includes: Cheryl Arnaud, owner of Montana Hunting Co.; Ed Beall, president of Capital Sports & Western in Helena; Shane Gorder, a rancher and Richland County Commissioner; Steve Harada, former president of Walleyes Unlimited of Montana; John Lane, a rancher and co-founder of the Devil’s Kitchen Management Area; Matt Lumley, vice president of the National Trappers Association; Chuck Rein, a Sweet Grass County rancher and president of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association; Lesley Robinson, a rancher, former Phillips County Commissioner and Gianforte’s running mate during his 2016 bid for governor; Scott Sales, president of the Montana State Senate; K.C. Walsh, executive chairman of Simms Fishing Products; John Way, fishing guide and owner of the Tackle Shop in Ennis; and Kerry White, executive director of Citizens for Balanced Use and a Montana state representative.
Gianforte appointed Kyle Weaver, the president and chief executive officer of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, to the team that will recommend new leaders for the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
“Montana’s landowners, hunters, and anglers share a tradition of working together to protect our lands and conserve wildlife,” Gianforte said in a press release. “We need a leader at the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks who is committed to strengthening this tradition.”
In a press release, Montana Conservation Voters expressed dismay over the panel.
"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," said MCV director Jake Brown. "MCV will be paying close attention during the upcoming legislative session and will fight any attack on our public lands or wildlife.”
It's not surprising that Gianforte ignored the state’s conservation groups considering some of them were vocal in opposing him at the ballot box. Snubbed on the committee were any representatives of the Montana Wildlife Federation, one of the state’s oldest conservation groups that acts as an umbrella for 17 local affiliates. Likewise, Gianforte ignored anyone from the Montana Sporting Coalition, which includes the MWF and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, as well as 11 other state hunting and fishing organizations.
“We definitely want a seat at the table … to engage the governor on wildlife conservation,” said Nick Gevock, conservation director for MWF.
He noted that ballot measures supporting public lands have received strong support in Montana. That support has been evidenced by FWP’s purchase of conservation easements to private ranches that has resulted in public access to thousands of acres of land while keeping traditional ranching and farming families on their property.
Gianforte, who often touts his interest in hunting and fishing, has a personal history with FWP. In 2009 he filed a lawsuit against the agency regarding an FWP easement that provided access to the East Gallatin River near his Bozeman home.
During his 2016 campaign for governor, Gianforte accused FWP of being “at war with the landowners in the state, trying to extract access and … using extortion to do it.” In an interview with the Billings Gazette that same year, Gianforte said FWP was staffed by "political insiders" who are "environmental extremists."
Fish, Wildlife & Parks has had a director appointed by a Democratic governor for the past 16 years, but for half of that time Jeff Hagener was in charge of the agency. Hagener was first appointed to the position by Republican Gov. Judy Martz. Her successor, Gov. Brian Schweitzer, kept Hagener on for four years, and then drew criticism when he replaced Hagener with his old college roommate, Joe Maurier.
When Gov. Steve Bullock won the governor’s race eight years ago, he brought Hagener back as director to try and mend fences with landowners frustrated by Schweitzer’s brash style. Hagener retired in 2016 and was replaced by current director Martha Williams. Williams, who was teaching natural resources and wildlife law at the University of Montana before joining FWP, is the 24th director of the agency in its 116-year history.
Gianforte has established several advisory teams to assist in identifying candidates to serve as agency heads and members of boards. All members of the FWP advisory team serve as volunteers.
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