Sitka Gear Turkey Tool Belt

Montana - Time to Shake it Up?

Big Fin

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I've always given the default benefit to FWP when it comes to season settings and such. I've relied on the good people within the agency with a lot more knowledge than me to make the final decisions. But over the years, the centralization of power to Helena makes it hard for the Regional folks on the ground to make much progress. Or, at least that is my observation.

I get it, the Governor who appoints the Director, tells the Director he/she wants to have his/her thumb on any big decisions, and pretty soon even selecting what brand of socks wardens can wear becomes "a big decision" that must come from Helena. That trend is my observation from 30+ years of being involved. From that, I've come to the conclusion that this centralization to Helena is part of what creates a lot of friction. I can't comment as to whether or not that is the feeling within the agency, but from the outside looking in, that is what I see in the outcomes we have.

When you centralize decision making, as FWP has over the decades, the power becomes concentrated in the hands of very few. Those who can get their hands on the levers of power end up with far greater influence than they proportionately should have. Decentralized decision making reverses that trend and makes it harder for certain actors to have exaggerated influence on the process and outcome. Reading some of the other options being considered to clean up how the Commission/FWP operates, such as electing Commissioners, ballot initiatives, etc. makes me wonder why we would have to take such radical steps to get better outcomes.

What really got me thinking on all of this was to see Region 4 stick their neck out with some new mule deer proposals. Maybe I'm completely out to lunch with what I'm about to write.

My thoughts are also influenced by seeing how other states have "Regional" or county wildlife boards or councils. Thus you don't have the "one size fits all" idea we see in Montana. Look at Wyoming; there are widely different season dates/structures among units for the same species. They are far from "one size fits all" and they end up with a superior product by doing this extra work.

Nevada has Regional committees. They have very little legislative meddling in their management. They adjust things regularly and do a lot of experimenting.

I'll give credit to UT, a state I've been critical of for auctioning the best of their tags in large numbers, for trying something new with mule deer. They are going to shuffle the deck and try something new in multiple units, while leaving a few units untouched to serve as the baseline for these experiments. Nobody knows how these experiments will work, but at least they aren't just accepting the same disappointing outcomes under what I call "Institutional Inertia," or "that's how we've always done it."

Now to Montana, specifically as it relates to deer and elk. I think about these issues in the context of Montana's diversity and many of the discussions that have happened on this forum. Comments on this forum are always reminding me how different every Region of Montana is when it comes to geography/topography, public/private mix, primary big game species, predator levels, and hunting cultures. If ever there is a state that needs to break out of the "one size fits all" mode, it is Montana.

I would like to see some experiments, by Region, crafted by those who are most impacted by the season dates and structures in those Regions. We don't have to accept identical season dates/types/structures statewide. Or the same season dates for deer that we have for elk.

I look at what Region 4 proposed for mule deer, however small of a step that is, kudos for trying something new. It might help Region 4. Without other Regions being willing/allowed to experiment, the Region 4 experiments might push hunters from Region 4 to other Regions, compounding the issues in those Regions.

I'd like to see the deer hunters in Region 7 come up with their own season dates, lengths, etc. and give it a try. I'd like to see Region 1 and 2 come up with new ideas for a heavily covered landscape that has more whitetails than mule deer, and give that a try. I'd like to see Region 3 come up with their own elk ideas and give that a try. I'd like to see (insert idea/experiment here). I'm not tied to any outcome, just interested in hunters feeling they have more input to the outcomes in their favorite areas and their backyard and not having the entire state be subjected to whatever group/person(s) can grab the levers of power in Helena.

It just seems crazy to have the same policies/season structures from 1980s in a state as large and diverse as Montana, with a resident population that has increased 50% in the last 30 years, with a huge transfer of private lands to non-resident landowners in the last 25 years. The fact that we are still in the 1980s I attribute to institutional inertia.

Change is always more work. The experiments would not be perfect, but hopefully over the next ten-twenty years we'd come up with ideas that work to address some of the issues that the Department, hunters, and landowners struggle with. I suspect some of it would be "status quo," as some of what we currently have is likely a product of the most palatable of the imperfect options available.

I'm interested in a discussion about decentralizing the management from Helena and giving more autonomy to the Regions and the people who hunt/live in those Regions. I'd like to encourage more experiments by folks out in the Regions, working with their Regional Commissioner and others, and hopefully giving more reasons for Commissioners stick to the many important issues in their own Region (yeah, that is pointed at Commissioner Tabor). And hopefully reduce some of the legislative meddling (likely a pipe dream). I do not feel that we have to elect Commissioners or have ballot initiative to arrive at better outcomes.

Maybe I'm crazy and we end up right back to what we have today. If so, fine by me, so long as it is a process that reflects what a majority of people want.

Interested in what the Hunt Talk community would think, even knowing this audience is far more engaged and at a different point in their hunting lives than a cross section of Montana hunters.
 
I have always thought that each Commissioner should have an unpaid region board comprised of hunters, landowners, outfitters, citizens, all stakeholders who would guide their respective regional Commissiorner's decisions and inputs. This process would also involve close collaboration with the FWP region staff and professionals. To me, that would lend the distinct and separate considerations for the complexity and diversity across Montana.
 
When we have directives to "simplify" our seasons, regulations, boundaries for the benefit of people who seemingly are unable to read regulations, it becomes even more daunting to consider this idea.
Further more placing any sort of restriction on turning our animals into profit is beyond this current commissions capacity to consider. If what your wanting is more "opportunity" then I think you'd have a good chance, but if your wanting increased diversity, stronger age class, better sex ratios... Good luck.
Its going to take a change in leadership.
 
When we have directives to "simplify" our seasons, regulations, boundaries for the benefit of people who seemingly are unable to read regulations, it becomes even more daunting to consider this idea.
Further more placing any sort of restriction on turning our animals into profit is beyond this current commissions capacity to consider. If what your wanting is more "opportunity" then I think you'd have a good chance, but if your wanting increased diversity, stronger age class, better sex ratios... Good luck.
Its going to take a change in leadership.
I don’t wanna see this go political but every time it goes to the you get what you vote for I wonder well who should I vote for them because not 1 person on a ballot is there for wildlife and it appears the current way things are structured are more a issue that the ballot
 
I have always thought that each Commissioner should have an unpaid region board comprised of hunters, landowners, outfitters, citizens, all stakeholders who would guide their respective regional Commissiorner's decisions and inputs. This process would also involve close collaboration with the FWP region staff and professionals. To me, that would lend the distinct and separate considerations for the complexity and diversity across Montana.
I think that was probably the original intent of the Citizens Advisory Councils.
 
Quick thoughts written on a phone:

The current EMP puts an emphasis on the creation of local working groups. I believe that can be a great way forward for a lot of “problem regions”. Be it mule deer or elk, I believe local knowledge, influence, and collaboration will render the best results. Working group members typically have county representation via at least one commissioner, and then you include other local contingents. That said, the coordination and administration of those groups needs to be supplied, and their recommendations need to have teeth. There’s a real concern with working groups, advisory councils, etc, being idea factories where everyone “agrees to agree”, but no big change comes of it. I guess what I’m saying is that local working groups could be a very useful component in the “big change” you are envisioning, but they’d need some gradation of authority.

I really do like the idea of local control and freedom to experiment what’s right for that geography referenced in the OP. The one caveat I could see being an issue is big restrictions in one chunk of earth, driving and increasing pressure in another. If some of Montana’s big changes are not made in concert, I could see it could disproportionately affecting another region.
 
I think that was probably the original intent of the Citizens Advisory Councils.
Likely that is correct. However, it seems the link between the regional CAC and the respective Commissioner is very weak if it exists at all. Furthermore the Council's agreed upon input seems to be carried forward by the Commissioner only if the Commissioner personally agrees. I contend that it should be the responsibility of the Commissioner, personal agreement or not. And it should be carried forward as the consensus regional perspective, not to be diluted by the personal perspective of the respective Commissioner.
 
The Citizens Advisory Councils were well intended. But as pointed out, they were never given enough authority and their ideas were only to be "taken under advisement." I'm suggesting something much more authoritative and responsive that requires/results in some experiments at the Regional levels.
 
I went to a season structure meeting at CPW last summer. I asked if it would be possible to take a deer DAU and completely manage it different than the rest of the western slope. Manage for age class instead of ratios, change season dates etc. They looked at me like I had 3 heads and said it wouldn’t be possible. I’m not sure if it is due to centralization of power here or not, but it certainly seemed like they were pretty closed minded.
 
We need to pass a ballot that puts the power back in the fwp hands, You can't manage when you don't have the power.
 
As hard as it was to get private land only doe tags and zero support from the local office with a fairly elementary concept, I have little hope of any meaningful change for our deer herd in the future.
 
Even New York has different season dates and regs between the southern tier and the northern tier and we're what; 5 times smaller...

I really wish the best to Montana hunters and Randy's suggestion seems like as good a path towards change as any. I think it's going to be a long road.
 
My extreme view is that we need to take back our voice in wildlife management and run a citizens initiative. Make the regional commissioner an elected position that answers to their constituents. We already do this with PSC. It's not perfect by any stretch but has to be better than what we have now. I would also like this position to be non-partisan affairs, like judges.

Randy as you well know from my history on HT that I've prophesized this train wreck in the making for a very long time.

As always my .02 cents worth.
 
The Citizens Advisory Councils were well intended. But as pointed out, they were never given enough authority and their ideas were only to be "taken under advisement." I'm suggesting something much more authoritative and responsive that requires/results in some experiments at the Regional levels.
I sat thru a cac meeting here in Billings where one of the guys complained about the season structure of the bear season in 702 and also complained to many people elk hunt that area. We need better people on speaking up not someone that’s upset they can’t hunt bear in south eastern mt.
 
The way I look at it, FWP is our agency, it is our wildlife to be managed by Trustees. It's up to us to change the course. I'm not pretending it would be easy or quick or the perfect solution. It is the most probable path I see to meaningful long-term change in how the Department is allowed/required to operate. But, I might be seeing it wrong.

Decentralizing the Department lessens the grip some folks/groups have on the direction of the agency because of a cozy relationship with who sits in the Governor's seat. I don't care which side has sat in the Governor's seat, as the centralized FWP power has morphed over the decades, there are always a small handful of groups who had/have access to the Governor and via that position they have/had disproportionate sway in wildlife policy and the outcomes usually had/have disproportionate benefit to that group.

I get the frustration and the request for an initiative that results in elected Commissioners. I previously thought of it as a potential solution. I've changed my thoughts on that. I'll provide my counter argument against an initiative that makes FWP Commissioners elected positions.

For me, the example of electing judges and the PSC Commissioners are exactly why I oppose elected Commissioners. The PSC Commissioner from my area was a local Political Party Chairman. He was previously a legislator and hyper-partisan. Everyone knew what party he was from. He used those party relationships and the party itself pretty much became an election machine for him in a "non-partisan" position. Same with our Supreme Court judges. Look at who almost won the Supreme Court position in 2022. A legal lightweight who was a lobbyist with the full backing of a political party. If the guy was a little bit less of a legal hack he likely would have won due to the backing of his party and his long-time affiliation with a party, not because of his understanding of legal complexities. I'm not optimistic that elected Commissioners would somehow be apolitical. If anything, experience tells me these would be easier positions for a moderately funded interest group to strategically hijack. And given the value a lot of our wildlife represents, I would fully expect some groups to do just that.

Then there is the cost of an initiative and the fact that the AG is who allows/approves language that would actually accomplish the goal. I have no confidence in our current AG. Also, an initiative is required to be tightly worded and focused on one issue, making initiatives less effective tools for fixing multi-sourced problems.

Thus my pivot on the idea of elected Commissioners and ballot initiatives.
 
My extreme view is that we need to take back our voice in wildlife management and run a citizens initiative. Make the regional commissioner an elected position that answers to their constituents. We already do this with PSC. It's not perfect by any stretch but has to be better than what we have now. I would also like this position to be non-partisan affairs, like judges.

Randy as you well know from my history on HT that I've prophesized this train wreck in the making for a very long time.

As always my .02 cents worth.
Respectfully, why do you think an elected official would be better than an appointed? Are Montana hunters, as a whole, of the opinion that they need to suck up less opportunity to improve the quality of their hunting? My impression was that many/most hunters are going to need to be dragged across the line here, to do what needs to be done. It seems to me like one of the issues that makes this so difficult is that many/most Montana hunters just don't want to accept what has happened to the population of the state and how that impacts hunting.
(That said, I haven't lived in Montana for a long time and I'd be interested in hearing your answer).
 
I’ll agree that the last statewide judicial election has certainly informed my own hesitancy about making commission seats an elected position. I don’t truly believe that partisanship can be kept out of races in the state.

However, I could see certain regions voting along partisan lines one way and other regions voting the other. This scenario could possibly provide more balance than the current all-appointed commission does.
 
I believe the real problem is the majority of Montana resident hunters, who are fine with how things are. They want a cheap license, long seasons, and as long as there is a chance for a forked MD buck or raghorn elk to throw in the back of the truck all is good. I’d love to see significant change, but the reality is unless there is a fundamental shift in the mindset of the average MT resident hunter I don’t think we can expect anything to change.

Top of page 5 pretty much sums it all up. https://fwp.mt.gov/binaries/content...lk/resident-elk-hunter-survey-report-2023.pdf
 

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