After six years on the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, there's just one thing Dan Vermillion hasn't done yet: Serve as the commission's chairman. And while Vermillion says the position "is probably not that different than being vice chairman," the post he's held for the past two years, the time to round out his tenure has come. Now the Livingston-based fly fishing guide will be heading the five-member board charged with overseeing the broader actions of one of Montana's most high-profile agencies.
Gov. Steve Bullock announced the details of his FWP Commission overhaul last week. Aside from Vermillion taking over the role previously filled by Bob Ream, who will maintain a seat on the commission, Bullock released the names of three new commissioners. The announcement came just months after Bullock replaced FWP Director Joe Maurier with Maurier's immediate predecessor, Jeff Hagener, the agency's director from 2001 to 2008.
The promotion to chairman came as something of a surprise for Vermillion. He'd conversed with Bullock's gubernatorial campaign last year regarding fish and game topics—particularly wolves and bison, two hot topics in the south central region of the state Vermillion represents—and had even sent a letter to the governor-elect in December requesting to be appointed chair. Nearly three months passed before Bullock's office responded, asking if Vermillion still wanted the position.
"Do I have a big agenda that I'm going to try to push as chairman?" Vermillion asks. "No. I don't see that as my role necessarily. I see the commission's role in general as a sort of citizen's outreach body that deals with the public, gets feedback from the public on issues that affect fish, wildlife and parks and then works with the department."
Vermillion may have his own ideas about the FWP Commission's role, but Bullock's recent announcement also came with a pair of gubernatorial charges for the new commissioners. Bullock wants the commission to develop FWP's budget for the 2015 Legislature and launch an in-depth review of the agency's acquisition policies and current land holdings.
Vermillion maintains his own take on the new commission's top priority.
"The biggest issue the department is facing is working on and improving our relationships out on the landscape with landowners, with sportsmen, with Montanans," Vermillion says. "I really feel like Fish, Wildlife and Parks is one of those agencies that is integral to the quality of life we enjoy in Montana. It's an agency that makes decisions about some resources that people care about very passionately, and we're tasked with managing wildlife, which is owned by the public and spends a lot of time residing on private land."
Vermillion adds he was the logical choice for chairman, given his status as the most senior member of the commission. But his tenure hasn't been without its rough patches. The state Senate nearly rejected his current term back in 2011, twice voting along party lines against his reappointment. Vermillion believes the friction came as a result of a contentious reduction in elk archery permits in eastern Montana in the late 2000s. The reduction resulted in limited opportunities for nonresident hunters, prompting backlash from outfitters and landowners.
"I was the person who sat on and set up an effort—a citizen's group—to try to take another look at that issue and come up with other solutions," Vermillion says. "Unfortunately, despite going through it twice, even citizen's groups couldn't agree on a solution."
Largely due to the failure of that effort, Vermillion found himself battling for his position on the commission. His reappointment was narrowly approved on a 27-23 vote. That term expires in 2015.
Despite new faces, a new chair and new charges from a new governor, Vermillion feels confident the FWP Commission will continue to face the same divisive issues that have punctuated the entirety of his tenure. The 2013 Legislature has seen a revival of many of the 2011 proposals that plagued the agency on wolves and bison. Regarding the latter, conservative lawmakers have renewed their efforts this spring to fight the agency's push, spearheaded by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, to establish new herds of wild bison in the state.
One of Bullock's new appointees may play to the advantage of those supporting the relocation of bison to tribal lands. Lawrence Wetsit, director of community services at the Fort Peck Community College, will replace resigning commissioner A.J. "Rusty" Stafne. Fort Peck tribal chairman Floyd Azure saluted Stafne in December 2011 for his role in the FWP Commission's approval to relocate 63 Yellowstone bison to the reservation. When the bison finally arrived last spring, Wetsit, himself an outspoken advocate of the cultural benefits of bison conservation, told the National Wildlife Federation that "the bison's return represents a renewed celebration of who we are as a people." Fort Peck board member Stoney Anketell says he's sure that Wetsit will do what he can to "further the cause."
Wetsit, an avid sportsman and former Fort Peck tribal chairman, believes it's his cultural responsibility to promote an understanding of how to live alongside all wildlife. While it's not his sole interest in joining the FWP Commission, Wetsit considers the appointment an opportunity to "educate people about the buffalo." The species has been greatly misunderstood by many in the current debate, Wetsit says.
"The buffalo are at the heart of every Indian," he adds. "We're plains people ... If there's anything that does come before the [FWP Commission], I definitely will support a lot of the past efforts the state of Montana and the tribes have made."