TFMPL vs MT FWP - Montana Wildlife Agency Violated Ethics Law
The office of the Commissioner of Political Practices ruled in favor of Trap Free Montana Public Lands in an ethics case we filed against Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks in 2014.
This case involved a violation of the rules of conduct required of public officers and public employees who are prohibited by statute, MCA 2-2-121, from using public time, facilities, equipment, supplies personnel or funds in either the support of or opposition to the passage of a ballot initiative in addition to other political activities.
Specifically, the case involved the multiple use of public property by the Montana Trapper’s Association (MTA) to oppose our 2014 ballot initiative, I-169. The public property being a trailer with the words emblazoned on it that reads Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and in large print “State Furbearer Program” along with the FWP logo. The trailer was used to transport furbearer displays. The furbearer displays serve as attention grabbers, drawing people in, a fact well known to the Montana Trappers Association and FWP. At public events, the Montana Trappers Association hung above or near the displays a large noticeable banner to oppose I-169. On at least one known MTA effort in opposing the initiative, the FWP trailer was parked in a conspicuous position visible to attendees and passer-byes.
For the October 21, 2016 hearing, we were without legal counsel while facing multiple reputable attorneys from FWP. We are all volunteer, grass roots. In the hopes of reaching a settlement, We had exhausted our limited reserves and time by electing to use legal counsel for a resolution. Our budget was about .00004 of FWP’s $75,000,000. We thank all our wonderful supporters for their contributions and blind faith in us as the case was completely confidential!
At the all day hearing we introduced over 50 documents as evidence. As well as the testimonial evidence elicited from witnesses it made it evident to an impartial judge of the facts that employees and officers of FWP had carried out actions that were in violation of statute during our 2014 ballot initiative attempt for I-169.
Montana FWP is very likely one of the most highly respected agencies within our state government. As such, any approval or even appearance of approval by the agency or its employees on a wildlife issue put forth including to Montana voters carries with it the ability to influence voter’s opinions. From the Montana Trappers Association’s use of crowd drawers publicly owned furbearer displays along with the FWP clearly nomenclature trailer, to oppose I-169, we will never know the extent to which this message that FWP opposes trap free Montana public lands had consciously and subconsciously implanted in the public’s minds. Subliminal messages are a very effective marketing technique resulting in people making decisions for unconscious reasons.
However, we at TFMPL were not the primary victims here. More importantly, it was the democratic process that was subverted, and in this, we are all victims.
Yet the facts and circumstances of this case are consistent with and exemplify a long close relationship between the trappers and FWP. For many years this relationship has been deep and pervasive, providing the interests of one small consumptive user group the ability to influence and shape the policies and actions of a state agency charged with the responsibility to manage and conserve our wildlife. While this relationship has benefited the trappers, it has not been one that either is in the best interests of the people of this state nor, especially, in the best interests of our wildlife. Montana has one of the worse grades in the nation for trapping regulations, a D-. This is not a minor problem. It involves the known annual average trapping and killing of 60,000 reported wildlife in Montana. These are just the ones reported. The majority of species are not required to be. There is much room for needed improvement in the treatment of our invaluable wildlife.
Here one small progressive step for wildlife, for the public, for fairness and democracy just occurred and for that we are very thankful! We hope that FWP will make this right to the best of their ability and heed the advice from the Commissioner of Political Practices rather than proceed with an appeal.
Guest columnist takes a closer look at Montana FWP contesting the ruling against them in our ethics case.
GEORGE OCHENSKI: Campaigns are no place for state agency interference - Missoulian
Montana wildlife agency violated ethics law, commissioner says - Great Falls Tribune