House Majority Leader Brad Tschida said he never expected to be called “the great unifier” for his proposal to eliminate social science from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
But the Missoula Republican did earn that moniker in two hours of public comment opposed to his House Bill 161 “establishing requirements for decision-making” at FWP.
The bill would prohibit the FWP director, staff and commission from using “social science, human dimensions, or people’s attitudes, opinions, or preferences in decision-making processes related to fish and wildlife.” It also struck every reference to “human enjoyment” of wildlife, including the policy of welcoming out-of-state hunters “to enjoy the state’s public wildlife resources.” It limited the policy of managing non-game wildlife to “scientific purposes,” striking “for human enjoyment.”
Instead, Tschida’s bill would require that FWP “may only use facts and science when making decisions.”
He insisted he did not intend to remove public comment from the process.
“I want additional input from anyone who experiences the outdoors,” Tschida said in an interview. “But at end of the day we want to use science, not emotion, to determine what the best outcomes are. They need to listen to what people say, but citizen input should not override the science.”
Tschida's approach prompted a unified response.
“I cannot recall a bill more misguided and mis-intended than House Bill 161,” former FWP deputy director Chris Smith told the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee last Tuesday. “I want to make it clear this bill is an attack on key elements of FWP information gathering.”
Eighty-two professors and researchers from throughout the country agreed with Smith in a letter on Jan. 22 objecting to the bill. They charged it both eroded public ownership of wildlife and sabotaged scientific wildlife management.
Tschida said the bill had one prime purpose: “to eliminate a position whose job, it appears to be, is to solicit ‘feelings’ people have about hunting, trapping and fishing.”
During the hearing, he quoted questions from a 2014 FWP survey that asked people’s opinions on a sliding scale from “strongly agree” to "strongly disagree.” He objected to questions that asked if animals should have the same rights as certain humans, if hunting respected the rights of animals and if the rights of wolves are more important than human interests.
“I don’t think animals are other people,” Tschida said during the hearing. “At the end of the day, I believe it’s an absolute necessity to base decisions on sound, fundamental science that benefits animals and their habitat. FWP should use science and not emotions to make those decisions.”
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The position Tschida wanted eliminated was FWP’s human dimensions supervisor, currently held by Michael Lewis. FWP Chief of Staff Paul Sihler said Lewis was working on 150 projects related to public opinions and values, at the request of FWPs’s fisheries, wildlife, law enforcement, education and citizen advisory departments. It was also conducting surveys at the behest of the Legislature, including one to determine if hunters and anglers supported spending $1 million on improving boat ramps in state parks.
The only person to support Tschida’s bill was Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman. He said he was concerned that FWP was failing to manage elk overpopulation, and recounted a conversation with an FWP biologist he would not name.
“I asked why can’t you get these populations of elk into target numbers so there would be less property damage,” White told the committee. “He told me we have to manage based on what is socially acceptable. This supervisor said we cannot manage based on science.”
Wolves of the Rockies representative Mark Cooke said White’s argument would have unintended consequences if FWP depended strictly on biological science.
“For the last eight years I’ve been coming here, fighting for wolves,” Cooke told the committee. “Now I have a bill that will do that for me. There could be 5,000 wolves if you base it on prey base and what the state habitat could handle. The other half of the state would be filled with wolves. This would have saved me a bunch of time.”
Smith added that no part of Montana currently exceeded the biological carrying capacity of elk, but herds in some areas have surpassed the social acceptance of landowners. FWP depended on social science methods to balance those landowner opinions with the biologists’ analyses.
Retired Arizona Game and Fish Department research program manager Denny Haywood pointed out that understanding public attitudes has a big impact on how hunting can be used as a tool for wildlife management. That matters in a society where the numbers of people who hunt have shrunk to 10 percent or less of the population.
“It’s difficult to recruit new hunters. You need to know what’s their motivation and how do we reach them?” Haywood said. “Public opinion surveys are critical to every wildlife management agency.”
Other opponents ranged from the Montana Chapter of the Audubon Society and Montana Conservation Voters standing alongside the Montana Bowhunters Association and Montana Sportsman’s Alliance. National Wildlife Federation representative Ben Lamb said it was the first time in 16 years he’d seen Defenders of Wildlife and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation aligned on an issue.
“I want to thank you for bringing us all together,” Chris Marchion of the Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club said of the packed room of opponents. “I can’t remember in 34 years I’ve ever seen all these groups aligned in the same way.”
The committee took no action on Tschida’s bill, but may vote on its fate Tuesday or Thursday.