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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Montana’s wildlife agency pulls back on science work

In this March 21, 2019, aerial file photo provided by the National Park Service, is the Junction Butte wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.  (HOGP)
By Rob Chaney The Missoulian

MISSOULA – Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks plans to shift its research program toward short-term, in-house efforts after a decade of ambitious work helped make it a world-renowned scientific contributor.

“There has been a shift,” FWP Wildlife Chief of Staff Quentin Kujala said. “We are moving away from longer-term projects – things longer than a (college student’s) master’s project. It’s a course adjustment tied to our new director. Rather than do the same research in other areas, we’re trying to extrapolate from our existing research as much as we can. And we’re moving away from long-term commitments and to smaller projects.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte appointed Hank Worsech to run FWP in January, making him the first Republican-chosen department director in 16 years. Previous FWP Director Martha Williams has moved on to become Democratic President Joe Biden’s deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition to overseeing hunting, fishing and state park activity, FWP performs a wide range of scientific research. That ranges from routine population counts of elk herds and trout spawning beds to complex analyses of predator-prey relationships and migration paths.

Kujala used a recently completed study of wolf predation on elk in the Bitterroot Mountains as an example of the research shift. That project spent more than a decade looking at whether wolf activity reduced elk numbers in the popular hunting areas around Ravalli and Beaverhead counties in FWP’s Region 2.

It produced some surprising answers: Mountain lions and black bears turned out to be the biggest eaters of elk in the Bitterroots, with wolves significantly trailing. Kujala said those results could be extrapolated, or used to explain the situation in a different place.

“Now we’ve got a heated discussion on predator-prey relationships in Region 1,” Kujala said, referring to the Sanders-Lincoln-Flathead county area of northwest Montana. “We think we can respond to that pressure not with a research design put in place, but rather with directly applied management application coupled with thoughtfully applied research that answers those pressing discussions.”

Gianforte signed four wolf-control bills brought by Republican Sanders County legislators Rep. Paul Fielder and Sen. Bob Brown in the just-finished legislative session. They require FWP to reduce wolf populations to a “sustainable” level and direct the state Fish and Wildlife Commission to consider allowing unlimited wolf kills, hunting wolves at night on private land, and using bait to hunt them. Other new laws allow the use of snares to kill wolves and let private organizations reimburse wolf hunters for their expenses.

Brown and Fielder argued that high wolf numbers and declining hunter success in FWP Region 1 justified their changes.

“The people felt they have not had a voice with the (state Fish and Wildlife) commission,” Brown told the House Fish and Wildlife Committee during debate on his SB 267 and SB 314 bills. “That is the attitude, the feeling, the people I represent have. That’s why this legislation comes forward.”

But the results of the Bitterroot study show why FWP should continue its deep science efforts, according to the Montana Wildlife Federation’s Nick Gevock, who testified against the wolf bills.

“Everybody was pointing the finger at wolves, and when we actually got in there, it was mountain lions and overharvest by humans that was the problem,” Gevock said. Furthermore, trying to apply that study to northwest Montana risks more errors, because the habitat is different, climates have changed, logging and road levels don’t match and human demographics have shifted.

“FWP has long been respected not just in the United States but around the world as a leading wildlife management agency because of its research,” Gevock said. “This is a complete shift in focus. We just pulled back on 25 native fish restoration projects that went through years to make the final cut. We’re spending $1 million to stock non-native pheasants on state lands. What is the purpose of this agency? We’re going from a resource agency to a retail agency.”

Kujala said one driver of the research shift was concern over the agency’s relationship with private landowners.

“We want to make sure that data collected is applied in ways that don’t alienate private landowners,” Kujala said. “That’s a big part of our effort in that arena. With the mixed landscape ownership we have, if you look to be successful with wildlife management, you need positive relationships with landowners.”

FWP also has a relationship with the Montana University System dating back nearly a century.

In 1937, Congress established a link between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state universities. In Montana, that’s resulted in the University of Montana’s Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit and a similar program at Montana State University focused on fisheries.

On average, at least half a dozen collaborative research projects involving FWP biologists, professors and graduate students are underway, according to UM’s Wildlife Biology Program Director Chad Bishop.

“The whole reason that system was set up is to ensure research conducted at universities is applied and relevant to state and federal agencies charged with managing fish and wildlife,” Bishop said. “If they pull back on supporting long-term research, that will affect the research we do with them. That will affect student opportunities.”

“It sounds like a lose-lose solution to what was a win-win situation,” said Scott Mills, UM’s associate vice president for research. “We get more insights from longer-term collaborative research than short-term siloed research.”

Mills added that unlike many other research relationships, UM does not charge FWP indirect costs when its professors and students collaborate with the state agency.

“Every dollar goes back to the research or management solutions,” Mills said. “It doesn’t build any building or buy a pencil.”

Much of that FWP research work occurs in partnership with groups like the National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Vital Ground Foundation. While Trout Unlimited last week raised alarms about an unexpected reconsideration of almost two-dozen trout restoration projects it’s involved with, several other organizations said they weren’t aware of FWP’s research shift.

Kujala noted this isn’t the first time FWP has adjusted its research tempo. In his experience, he’s seen a notable boost in research activity starting about 12 years ago, replacing a period where the agency was more management-focused. The new structure aims to take best advantage of that stack of science that’s been completed, he said.

“How much do you wait for wildlife management decisions and long-term projects to conclude?” Kujala said. “What is the need for detailed understanding of every area, if 85% of the functionality can be extrapolated from research already in place? We’re emphasizing that at the conclusion of research projects, we need to have done two things: clearly communicate to all parties that should know about it, and be clear about what’s the management question we wanted to ask and answer.”