Stephen Capra, Executive Director, Bold Visions Conservation This past week, an audit came to light of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks and how they are managing Game Wardens. The report made clear that morale in the department is at a very low level. Why does this matter for wildlife? Well, combing through the report, it is clear the strong arm of the Governor and his henchmen are doing all they can to control wildlife in Montana. It's a subject I have written about many times, but this report sheds light on the reality on the ground. Wildlife Management for wolves has been a disaster, and now grizzlies are being killed in higher numbers; that will likely worsen as the state moves towards delisting. Wildlife management in Montana is broken; this report brings that into clearer focus. Most of the funding for enforcement comes to the agency through the sales of hunting and fishing licenses, leaving no area for non-sportsmen to contribute. In fiscal year 2022, this amounted to $12.9 million, with another 6% coming from Pittman-Robinson funding. Personal services accounted for 77% of expenditures, the rest going to:
Recreational Boating Safety
Statewide law Enforcement
Hiring and training
This works in degrees across the state; areas in Western Montana are more likely to confront urban wildlife issues than the eastern portion. Of the 106 Game wardens in the state, 78 responded to the audit. What was clear from the start was the lack of trust in their HR department, with whom they must share concerns. Since the Governor came to power, the turnover in HR has been non-stop. But perhaps most significant was the decision by former Fish, Wildlife and Parks head Hank Worsech. At the direction of the Governor, he removed what had been the regional management of wardens and turned it into top-down management from Helena. The result has been massive retirements from people in the agency with real legacy experience.
Wardens collect data via a statewide law enforcement system, SmartCOP, which generates Warden activity reports. There are questions about the accuracy of the data entered by the wardens, as the state only performs "ad hoc" checks, comparing written citations with the data entered, so their accuracy is questionable. Those in charge in Helena have yet to provide a management plan for such usage by those on the ground. Wardens also see themselves more as cowboys than cops. Wardens like to work with landowners on wildlife management and public outreach. Still, more and more, they are being deputized in rural communities to work on drug issues, alcohol, and traffic offenses. They do not believe that hunter and angler dollars, their primary funding sources, should be spent on these other issues, and how the monies are allotted for such actions remains to be questioned. Those in charge at the director's office have yet to define the role of wardens in this Administration. More than 50% of wardens who responded to the audit said they had experienced intimidation or retaliation from the enforcement Chief's office in the past five years, creating a cultural divide between wardens in the field and management in Helena. They describe a culture that did not support open communication. Despite an increase in funding, the number of citations has dropped in recent years, wardens say, due to poor morale and lack of support. In 2022, Director Worsech disbanded FWP's Criminal Investigation Unit. This unit had been responsible for some of the most crucial poaching cases and for bringing those involved to justice. But the Governor did not want this unit to exist; according to my sources, this directly resulted from what has occurred and continues to occur on the Sinclair Ranch, where Gianforte killed Max the Wolf. The ranch is managed by notorious trapper and close confident to the Governor, Matt Lumley. I have been told that the Governor wants no one looking at what goes on at this ranch, with wealthy donors and others killing and trapping wildlife. Thus, it was their imperative to eliminate the Criminal Investigative Unit. Add your text here. Edit to add dynamic values like name, email, and more.
The reality is this: our Governor and those working with him are at the beckoning call of outfitters, livestock producers, and private landowners, all of whom profit from the killing of wildlife. What has changed is the lengths this Governor is willing to go to harm wildlife and destroy what had been the finest wildlife agency in the nation. National groups like the Congressional Sportsmen Caucus have fingerprints on these actions as they move to destroy predator species and push a radical pro-trapping and trophy-hunting agenda onto Governors across the nation.
I want to say write to the US Fish and Wildlife Agency and demand an investigation, but most people I have spoken with viewed that as a fool's errand. But we must continue to push the press to find the parts of this report that were redacted to make clear that sportsmen must be the voice of change. It begins with groups like we are creating called Hunters in Defense of Predators; the website will be up soon. It is designed to get Hunters to support a Leopoldian ethic and not support trapping, predator killing, and wildlife killing contests. Dave Stalling will be leading this effort. Hunters must demand change and fight such radical hunting organizations; many agree that this is no way to support wildlife.
Yet, the problems continue, and we must make clear that grizzlies cannot be delisted, for to do so is to set in motion their demise. We must demand that our wildlife agencies be rebuilt from the ground up. We must also see that the Criminal Investigation Unit be restarted, with its first mission to investigate the Sinclair Ranch!
In the end, we must break the Governor's control over wildlife in Montana. That will take strong will and a determined voice.
Please review the new issue of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Magazine, Montana Outdoors. They have the real nerve to write an article about ethics. It is enough to make your blood boil, coming from an agency with no ethics. Take the time to read, and please send a response to the magazine that hopefully will be printed in the next issue. Make clear to Montana Game and Fish they have no standing to talk about wildlife and ethics, given the state of wolves and grizzlies.
We need to speak out now! Write to Montana Outdoors Editor Tom Dickson: email@example.com