This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.
Newly bound by a settlement between a wolf advocacy group and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the seven-member Fish and Wildlife Commission charged with “wise management” of the state’s fish and wildlife resources conducted its business with a particular eye toward transparency when it met Oct. 19.
The Oct. 11 settlement, reached with Stevensville-based nonprofit Wolves of the Rockies, aims to close the book on a year-long dispute over open-government violations, more specifically friction surrounding FWP’s compliance with public record requests and allegations that commissioners acted unlawfully in 2022 when they discussed items on their agenda outside of public process. Four of the body’s five commissioners, all Gov. Greg Gianforte appointees, were implicated in those closed-door meetings conducted via email — enough to form a quorum and thereby violate right-to-know provisions enshrined in the Montana Constitution. The agreement leads with an admission that FWP violated Wolves of the Rockies’ constitutional rights by “failing to produce public information and failing to properly notice and conduct public meetings.”
What constitutes a “timely” response to public records requests could become quite a bit clearer if Senate Bill 232 passed the Montana Legislature. The proposal by Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, unanimously passed the Senate on March 2.
When commissioners delivered their customary reports at the start of the Oct. 19 meeting, they were required by the settlement to explicitly disclose which groups they’d met with since the body’s last public meeting, a stipulation intended to provide the public with more transparency about who might be lobbying the commission. A number of commissioners said they’d had contact with the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, a couple had met with Trout Unlimited staff or members, and one commissioner said he’d met with Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition and local sporting groups also made the list. Only hair Lesley Robinson said she had nothing to disclose.
Other pieces of the settlement involve the disclosure of text messages and emails sent in the periods between public meetings, a commitment to use only government phones and email addresses for commission business, and a requirement that commissioners, who are appointed by the governor to four-year terms, attend trainings on open-meeting and open-record compliance. The 7-page settlement, inked on Oct. 11 and first reported by the Missoula Current, also includes clauses specific to Wolves of the Rockies — for example, a requirement that the commission post comments the group submits online and allow it an hour of public comment during the commission’s June 2024 meeting.
In an Oct. 24 conversation with Montana Free Press, Wolves of the Rockies President Marc Cooke said he has “bittersweet” feelings about the settlement.
“I’m very happy that they were called out for their bad behavior and acknowledged that they violated our constitutional rights, but it was all avoidable — it’s been avoided in the past,” he said.
Cooke added that he’s not “terribly optimistic” that the agency and commission will uphold the terms of the consent decree.
FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon has said that the agency values transparency and noted that the transparency protections included in the agreement were generated by agency staff. FWP has streamlined the record request process, according to Lemon.
The audit, which was completed at the request of the bipartisan Legislative Audit Committee, highlighted communication issues, waning morale and concerns about a lack of trust between the agency’s headquarters in Helena and the 90-plus wardens working throughout the state.
Like other state agencies, FWP is subject to statutory deadlines to comply with public record requests after an overwhelming majority of lawmakers voted to apply clear timelines to the statutory definition of “timely” response. Per Senate Bill 232, which went into effect for most executive branch agencies on Oct. 1, those deadlines range from five business days for simple requests to up to six months for larger or more complex petitions.
The settlement with Wolves of the Rockies comes as the agency is subject to more public and legislative scrutiny. Last month, the Legislative Audit Division found that there were cultural issues within the agency’s enforcement division that created an atmosphere of retaliation and intimidation under the leadership of former top warden Dave Loewen. Loewen has since been replaced by Ron Howell.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Oct. 25, 2023, to correct the name of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ former enforcement chief. It was also updated to reflect that the Fish and Wildlife Commission contained five members when the open meeting violations occurred; it only later expanded to include seven members.
Since a homeless shelter was cleared out in November just outside of the Helena city limits, new camps made up of tents and tarps have popped up within the city parks, on sidewalks and in alleyways, sparking community concerns about public safety while also highlighting the growing unsheltered crisis.
Before Tim Sheehy was the frontrunner in Montana’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate, the ex-Navy SEAL, aerial firefighter, millionaire business owner, part-time rancher and occasional political donor was a 2004 graduate of a Minneapolis-St. Paul area private high school who grew up in a lake house outside Minnesota’s Twin Cities.
Missoula author Debra Magpie Earling carried the seeds of a story about Sacajewea for years. When she walked away from teaching at the University of Montana, she finally made the mental space to bring it to fruition. The result is this year’s “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea.” Earling talks about imagination and history with MTFP contributor Anna Paige.