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Governor, director dismantling FWP

| May 30, 2024 12:00 AM

If there is one thing every business owner, rancher and manager agrees on, it’s that if you don’t have good people, you don’t have much.

And if there’s one thing Montanans (and, increasingly, outsiders) know, it’s how good our hunting and fishing opportunities generally are. They make life here special. They feed our families and shape our lives. We tend to assume these same opportunities will continue for our kids, regardless of income – but Governor Gianforte and Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Dustin Temple have shown yet again they have very different ideas.

When we learned May 20 that Eileen Ryce, FWP’s highly regarded fisheries division administrator, had become the latest middle and senior manager there to be suddenly placed on administrative leave – usually a pause on the path to a permanent exit – it further confirmed a pattern of chaos, intimidation and firings of the best and most experienced people in a once-renowned agency.

As Laura Lundquist’s May 20 article in the Missoula Current documents, Governor Gianforte’s tenure has resulted in the unexplained termination of a large number of senior people. A legislative audit in the enforcement division and a “culture survey” distributed agency-wide reveal a crisis of low morale, early departures and forced retirements.

Referring to Ryce’s sudden escort out the door, one insider stated, “This was meant to intimidate and destroy morale … The message is, ‘if it can happen to her, it can happen to you’.”

She was one of the last of Temple’s administration with a background in fish and wildlife science – in fact, a Ph.D. from MSU. Ryce was known for professionalism, open communication and staunch defense of her staff – precisely the opposite of the reputations of Gianforte and Temple.

Temple’s tactics are working. Morale at the agency has never been lower, and candidate pools for open positions have eroded in quantity and quality.

Seasoned experts fluent in science and policy, and known to landowners and decision makers, have been replaced by young staffers who, without mentors, can be easily controlled and silenced. Gianforte either thinks that Montanans are too stupid to notice he is killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, or he just doesn’t give a damn.

For years FWP attracted the best graduates of fish and wildlife programs nationwide and beyond. Because of their dedicated work we fish world-famous populations of wild trout, we enjoy long, productive hunting seasons, and every resident who wants an A elk tag gets one – none of which are necessarily true in other western states.

Here’s the rub, though: while it takes years to build and refine an excellent agency, excellence can be and has been dismantled in short order. Temple is a software developer, but has anyone else had trouble with the changes and recurring tech failures in licensing and permit drawings? Yeah. Us too.

Gianforte’s systematic evisceration of FWP, disregard for resident hunters and anglers, and giveaways to outfitters and non-resident landowners are widely recognized, but they are not unique. The Office of Public Instruction, the Department of Public Health and Human Services, the Attorney General’s Office, and other agencies that Montanans pay for and value have been hollowed out and damaged nearly beyond recognition. If Gianforte had managed RightNow Technologies the way he and his bullying appointees have managed these agencies, he would be bankrupt instead of a billionaire.

On Nov. 5 Montanans will have a serious and consequential choice – and when we fill out our ballots we can choose to stand up to a governor who does not stand up for us, our hunting, our fishing, our wildlife – and our values.

– Jock Conyngham, Evaro

Greg Munther, Missoula

Jeff Herbert, Helena

Joe Perry, Conrad

Ray Gross, Dillon

Bruce Sterling, Thompson Falls

Harvey Nyberg, Lewistown

Andrew McKean, Glasgow

Don Thomas, Lewistown

J.W. Westman, Park City

Mike Penfold, Billings

Tim Thier, Trego