Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows and Bozeman-based campground owner Susan Kirby Brooke are officially joining the Fish and Wildlife Commission, the governor-appointed body charged with establishing hunting and fishing regulations and reviewing Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks land acquisitions. The Montana Senate on Friday confirmed Burrows’ and Brooke’s nominations as well as the reappointment of two sitting commissioners.
Burrows is assuming the position previously held by Jana Waller, who’s moving out of state and did not reapply for another term. Burrows is an environmental engineering graduate of Montana Tech who previously worked for the U.S. Air Force in Colorado Springs as a civilian engineer. He has served on the Ravalli County Commission since 2012 and in January assumed another four-year term in that seat. Burrows also serves on the Montana Forest Action Advisory Council and the Ravalli County Collaborative, both of which engage in natural resource management issues.
Brooke will take over the seat formerly held by Pat Byorth. She grew up on a Madison Valley ranch and previously served on the Board of Environmental Review, the quasi-judicial body that adjudicates disputes between the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the industries it regulates, and on the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, which was tasked with helping the state negotiate compacts with tribes possessing federally reserved water rights.
Questions from committee members during a Tuesday hearing on their nomination shed some light on how Burrows and Brooke intend to approach their positions on the commission, an essentially all-volunteer body that tends to draw heated public comment. (One commenter, Matt Lumley with the National Trappers Association and the Outdoor Heritage Coalition, said south-central Montana is “probably the hottest wildlife district in the nation” given the presence of bison, wolves and grizzlies, all three of which have some relationship to the Endangered Species Act.)
Elk management in the crosshairs
When Henry “Hank” Worsech took the helm of FWP, Gov. Greg Gianforte tasked him with finding a new approach to balancing landowner concerns with hunter opportunity. In the aftermath of Worsech’s attempt to shake up the status quo, the department has been thrust into a lawsuit while hunters organize themselves in anticipation of the 2023…
Asked by committee members how he intends to balance the interests of private property owners, the outfitting industry and non-outfitted hunters and anglers, Burrows said he would “err first and foremost on the side of landowners” while also recognizing the importance of hunting and angling on public lands.
Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, asked Brooke about her understanding of Madison River recreation management, one of the hot-button issues Region 3 has grappled with for years. She said she thinks of it as an overcrowding issue, not a matter of fishery health. She added that she expects the state will eventually address crowding on its most popular rivers by moving to a daily permitted or ticketed system similar to what Glacier National Park instated in 2021.
The Senate also approved the reappointments of Phillips County rancher and current commission chair Lesley Robinson and Ismay rancher Bill Lane, but not without a bit of scrutiny from Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel. Molnar, who’s sponsoring a bill that would make commission appointments nonpartisan, paid and elected rather than appointed, criticized Robinson’s recent handling of elk tag allocations.
Molnar accused the commission of setting up an-out-of-cycle work session to grant bull elk tags to the brothers Dan and Farris Wilks, who participate in an FWP program that distributes bull elk tags to a handful of large landowners in exchange for some public elk hunting. (The Wilks brothers own hundreds of thousands of acres of ranchland across Montana, many of which are used for trophy hunting.)
“That does not lead me to believe that the leadership is in a direction I would like to go,” Molnar said.
Molnar was the lone Republican to vote against Senate Resolution 3, the measure advancing the appointees’ nominations. He was joined by all but three of the Senate’s Democrats.
The appointees will serve four-year terms.
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