Something's fishy 

New hires at Fish, Wildlife and Parks raise concerns

Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) has one of the most important jobs in the state—namely, taking care of Montana's world-famous wild trout fisheries; keeping our diverse wildlife and big game healthy, genetically strong and diverse; and managing the 320 fishing access sites and 53 state parks spread across the fourth largest state in the union. But now, questions are being raised about hirings at the agency that, from all available evidence, are being based on political connectedness to Gov. Brian Schweitzer rather than professional abilities—and that's bad news for Montanans.

Eyebrows were raised when Schweitzer first imported his old college roommate, Joe Maurier, to head the Parks Division of FWP a couple years back. Maurier, who worked in the Parks Division of Colorado's Department of Natural Resources, is a likeable guy, but those familiar with the level of commercial development and the excessive fee schedules for Colorado's parks were leery of what he might want to do in Montana.

Sure enough, under Maurier the agency soon tried to institute a whole series of electrification projects at state parks so huge recreational vehicles could "hook up" to however much power they could possibly use to run their air conditioners, washers and dryers, televisions, ovens and refrigerators while "camping."

The response was overwhelmingly negative by Montanans, who typically go to their favorite parks to enjoy nature, not the hum of all-night air conditioners, outside lights and television commercials. With gasoline and diesel running over $4 a gallon at the time, catering to what would obviously be a diminishing number of large RVs seemed idiotic. Add to that the increased cost of electricity and an inability to determine exactly how much electricity individual units were using and the whole boondoggle collapsed.

Then, in a move that raised serious consternation among agency personnel, well-respected FWP Director Jeff Hagener was precipitously removed from his position and escorted from the office by the governor's staff. What happened next? Maurier was appointed by Schweitzer to become FWP director and soon thereafter, with no public involvement whatsoever, announced he was going to re-organize the entire department. Given Maurier's woefully inadequate qualifications in fisheries and wildlife, his announcement made more than a few people very nervous about the outcome.

Now, only months after Maurier took his new position, Art Noonan, the former executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, has been hired as the deputy director for FWP at an annual salary of $85,506. Noonan, like Maurier, is a nice enough guy, but he has no professional background in managing fisheries, wildlife or parks. Nonetheless, he is now second in command over those charged with the often-difficult and complex tasks of stewarding those precious resources.

In a guest opinion in Sunday's Missoulian, Mark Henckel, an outdoor writer for the Billings Gazette, penned a scathing condemnation of the move, suggesting it may be "a political plum at resource management's expense." Henckel has a long-standing and close connection to FWP and it's certainly not beyond imagination that those within the agency, who are undoubtedly shocked at the recent developments, have turned to Henckel to give voice to their concerns in the media.

In Maurier's own words, Noonan was hired because: "He is a leader and has great knowledge in the matters before FWP. Noonan has more than 35 years of experience in the legislative process, in both federal and state government, that will be an asset to our team. He has the ability to track down federal funding for a wide variety of projects for our outdoors that will enhance and maintain access opportunities for sportsmen and women."

Unfortunately, Maurier neglected to detail the breadth of Noonan's "great knowledge" in fish and game issues beyond noting his involvement in the political process at both the federal and state level. And sure enough, Noonan has worked in politics since the mid-'70s, served on the staff of former Sen. John Melcher and then former Rep. Pat Williams. But Melcher has been out of office for 20 years and Pat Williams left D.C. 13 years ago. A lot, to put it mildly, has changed since then.

What Noonan has done politically in the last 13 years is telling. He's served in the state legislature in the House of Representatives as minority floor leader and helped push Schweitzer's energy development agenda through the legislative process with such determination that he even dressed down Democrats who dared question the governor's sometimes arcane plans.

In politics, the loyal servant has historically been rewarded in many ways, not the least of which is securing positions of power in government agencies. If Henckel is right, that's what's happening now.

If that's the case, Montanans have reasons to be worried. FWP has long been seen as non-political and, should that status change, it may bode ill for FWP in coming legislative sessions. If there's any hint that decisions are being based on politics instead of science, we'll be treated to an embarrassing repeat of Bush-administration cronyism right here in Montana under a Democratic governor.

Elk are now suspected of transmitting brucellosis to cattle—and the decisions facing the state on that issue alone are daunting. Indiscriminately slaughtering bison is bad enough, but when and if they decide to go after elk, well, them's fighting words in Montana. Likewise, the increasing impacts of global warming are challenging fisheries and wildlife managers in a plethora of ways that seem to intensify and change with every passing day.

Perhaps it will all work out just fine, but scrambling the agency from the top down with no public input, and letting folks without a professional background determine the future of Montana's fish and wildlife resources is troublesome. It's far too important to subject to political games.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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