Missoula lawmaker’s bill would tell FWP to ignore public opinion in managing fish, wildlife

Everyone wants Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to use the best available science to manage fish and wildlife, but few supported a bill that would make biology the only basis for decisions.

On Tuesday in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee, three dozen people from a wide range of sportsmen’s and wildlife groups rose to oppose Missoula Rep. Brad Tschida’s House Bill 161.

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula

Tschida’s bill would allow FWP to listen to public comment, but not use the input to inform any decisions, particularly those related to landowner tolerance of wildlife. Managers would only use facts and science and ignore people’s attitudes, opinions or preferences.

“What I believe is public input should not drive the science behind managing fish and wildlife,” Tschida said. “I think only those who have a case of psychosclerosis may object to this. Anyone who has arteriosclerosis understands that – it is a hardening of the arteries. Psychosclerosis is a hardening of your attitudes. I want people to be open to hear what we’re saying.”

However, only one person rose to support Tschida’s bill: Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman.

White spoke of his brother’s ranch, which was having trouble with unwanted elk. Saying 80 elk hunting districts had herds that were above manmade population objectives, White said the only problem was FWP’s inability to manage herds according to science.

“They tell me that they have to manage according to what is socially acceptable,” White said. “That’s why I come here. I was told the human dimensions unit was what was gauging the public’s social acceptance of management decisions, which I think should be based upon science.”

In the past, the Legislature has mandated that FWP manage elk to the manmade objectives that were set a decade ago. But FWP managers have regularly pointed out that the objectives are determined by a combination of biology and the amount of social acceptance in each district.

Those who opposed the bill didn’t mind that science was the emphasis of management, but they didn’t like diminishing the democratic process of public comments. The only public comment that would be accepted would be that of landowners, according to the bill.

“HB161 drives a wedge between the landowner community and the public,” said Jeff Herbert of the Montana Sportsmen’s Alliance. “I hope the irony of a proposal to remove public input from decision-making processes is not lost in this moment where citizens of this state stand before you to offer their attitudes, opinions or preferences.”

Among those who opposed the bill were several former FWP supervisors and former FWP directors, including Jeff Hagener.

Hagener and others said the Montana Constitution and the Montana Environmental Policy Act require that agencies allow public participation, so the bill could be challenged in court if it was signed into law. Wildlife populations cannot be successfully managed without public support and the public doesn’t tend to support things they aren’t allowed to weigh in on, Hagener said.

Gary Oldhouse of the Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club said sportsmen from his organization have worked together with FWP biologists on several issues, providing them with information they wouldn’t otherwise have had. In addition, sportsmen’s dollars pay for FWP’s research.

“It takes people along with the sciences. We are the eyes of the biologists,” Oldhouse said.

Spokespeople for some wildlife groups were almost gleeful at the thought that FWP biologists would be allowed to make decisions based only on science. Marc Cooke of the Wolves of the Rockies said such a law would have saved him a lot of time because science supports having more predators like wolves in the ecosystem. Chris Marchion of the Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club extended the same argument to grizzly bears and bison.

“Think about bison. Bison are a native population and you need at least 5,000 and you have only 2,000 in one population. If you remove the social aspects of that, we could ram that down someone’s throat. But we need to make sure they’re socially accepted,” Marchion said.

Grizzly bears were on the minds of some committee members. Rep. Vinton asked if the bill would be able to remove the grizzly from the endangered species list.

Former FWP chief of staff Chris Smith said the grizzly bear was not in danger in the greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems and that it was the legalities of the Endangered Species Act that kept the bear listed for now. So Tschida’s bill would have no effect.

In his closing, Tschida used the opponents’ support of science as an argument for his bill. He warned that not using science could result in a situation like that of America’s wild horses. The science says the population cannot continue to grow but social pressure keeps horses from being killed.

“We need to take all the input we can. But at the end of the day, it’s a necessity to base decisions on sound science to manage animals and their habitat,” Tschida said.

The committee will consider a vote within the next few weeks.