Audit finds lack of consistency and clarity in game-damage program

A legislative audit has taken Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to task for a lack of consistency and oversight in carrying out a program to reduce game damage to property.

On Tuesday, state auditor Joe Murray explained the 11 problems he and his staff found with FWP’s game-damage program based upon almost 600 landowner requests made over the past five years.

The game damage program helps landowners reduce or contain property damage caused by wildlife, usually elk, as long as  landowners allow a certain level of public hunting during the season. Help can come in many forms, from fencing and hazing to hunts out of season.

In recent years, elk have become a bigger problem in some areas, often because some landowners don’t allow hunting access during the season. Elk learn where they are safe from hunters, and then they expand onto other properties once the season is over.

Over time, landowners who allow hunting but still have property damage become less willing to cooperate with FWP. That contributes to the problem.

Murray found inconsistencies in how the game-damage program is administered in different regions, a problem that was also cited in a recent audit of another hunting program called block-management. Landowners enrolled in block management get FWP help with managing public hunting on their land.

The game-damage audit also found that regional supervisors weren't adequately managing how their staff carried out the program.

FWP Operations Chief Paul Sihler acknowledged all the deficiencies found in the audit.

“I think the auditors have pointed out some gaps that we had. Some policy and procedure changes and clearer definitions will help. And we’ve had 50-percent staff turnover in the last 10 years, and I don’t think we’ve done an adequate job of training new staff that’s come in,” Sihler said.

Murray said the root of those trends was confusion over a detail that FWP has struggled with in recent years: the definition of “public hunting access.”

“The current rule doesn’t provide any clear direction on what does or does not constitute public hunting. It was hard for us to gage through our review as to what that rule meant and staff were certainly unclear,” Murray said. “This bubbled to the surface more in 2006, after the policy change and after the elk management plan was passed that put more emphasis on public access to qualify for game damage assistance.”

Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, asked if other states had definitions of public access, but Murray said they were struggling with the same problem.

FWP, hunters and landowners must come together to find a definition that will provide better guidance on how to qualify for game-damage assistance, Murray said.

Some landowners want to be able to qualify as long as they allow family and friends on their land during the regular season, while sportsmen’s groups want more access for public hunters.

FWP research has found that effective elk management can’t be achieved unless several hunters can push herds around a majority of the landscape. A handful of hunters stalking trophy bulls on a large ranch does little for population control.

To augment game damage hunts, the FWP commission is considering proposals extending the five-week season to kill more elk, but without more access, an extended season has the same problem.

The audit found that occasionally FWP staff, in efforts to improve relations, provided game-damage assistance to landowners who didn’t allow public hunting.

“It’s not appropriate under the statute, but it’s a sincere effort to work with landowners and solve problems,” Sihler said.

Brown said she applauded the intent of their actions, but that wasn’t allowed under statute. When she asked if any of those landowners had subsequently opened up their land to hunting, Sihler said some had and some hadn’t.

Finally, the audit recommended that FWP create a database of game-damage cases and an inventory of supplies.

Murray said such a database would help FWP manage more effectively and be more accountable to hunters, landowners and the Legislature. Also supplies such as fencing and cracker shells were sometimes stored at employees' residences, and there was nothing to prevent people from using supplies for their own purposes, Murray said.

“Data was often inaccurate or had missing information,” Murray said. “Historically, an information system has not been a department priority. But as soon as we spoke to the department about this, they did get the ball rolling.”

The only catch in the audit might be the November deadline for getting into compliance.

Sihler said administrative rule changes take time to go through the commission and public process so the timelines might not mesh.

Audit committee chair Randy Brodehl, R-Kalispell, gave Sihler a stern warning.

“I hope your people understand that the rules are in place and the laws are in place for them to follow,” Brodehl said.