Enforcing the law

Opinion | Montana’s legislature must restore funding so FWP can protect our natural resources
By Jenny Gessaman | Staff Writer

MONTANA’S landscape is inseparable from its identity. Mountain ranges young and old texture the state’s prairie, while rivers and creeks wind their way into three different watersheds.

This is our amazing Big Sky State. This is our almost 147,000 square miles of outside, and it’s suffering because the state can’t protect it. The law enforcement division of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) is legally barred from doing most of its job.

FWP enforcement officers, better known as game wardens, administer Montana’s wildlife management laws. They “make sure people aren’t breaking the law when they are out there hunting, fishing and trapping,” Chief of Law Enforcement Dave Loewen said.

Right now, the terms of the wardens’ funding require them to do something other than that for 14 hours of their workweek. Unless, of course, they’re willing to break federal law to do their jobs.

It’s a dramatic statement, to be sure, but dramatic fits. Not only is the problem real, it originated with the equally dramatic state budget negotiations of 2017.

That whole partisan kerfuffle surrounded a budget shortfall and ended with significant budget cuts. Some fell below the public’s radar, and those cuts became insidious: hidden in the state’s core infrastructure, they internally nibbled away at our government.

Enter the FWP and its law enforcement division. The legislature’s budget changed how Montana funded the division’s salaries. To save money, the state increased the amount of federal funding used in those wages. A good chunk of that funding was Wildlife Restoration Program grants, informally known as PR funding, for the Pittman-Robertson Act that created it, and it comes with tight strings: the funds cannot be used for law enforcement. The money is meant to fund wildlife management “exclusive of law enforcement and

public relations” (16 USC § 669g, if you’re interested).

So how big was that increase in PR funding for law enforcement salaries? One thousand percent. That means almost a third of each officer’s salary bans them from doing law enforcement.

It’s problematic, according to Loewen. The division now has a list of PR activities:  wildlife management tasks staff can do instead of law enforcement.

This means Loewen’s staff focuses on conservation management instead of conservation enforcement, and the change is impacting resources Montanans love.

Fish are one example. The summer of 2017 was hot and dry and full of fire. The conditions prompted fishing restrictions across Montana, but those limitations weren’t effective.

“We were unable to have an enforcement presence at those fishing restrictions,” Loewen said. “We were unable to do basic compliance checks.”

The lack of enforcement is a tricky change, and it’s hitting the state on several levels. Resident reports are now a major factor in FWP’s attempts to stop misbehavior. Loewen’s division lost an investigator to early retirement, a decision prompted by the funding change.

And, worst of all, one mistake could cost a state department’s budget. The entirety of FWP’s annual PR award, roughly $30 million, could be at risk if Loewen’s division makes one wrong move, like working too many enforcement hours. This budget cut is altering more than a budget; it’s altering an essential division of our government.

But the wardens are studiously logging their hours and activities. FWP is noting the side effects. Maybe during the next budget negotiations, the wardens will incite some change. Maybe they won’t have to choose between their job descriptions and federal law. Maybe, as FWP’s law enforcement, game wardens will be able to go back to enforcing the law.