Commissioners violated public meeting laws to relax wolf hunting regulations
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) has admitted to violating the public’s constitutional right-to-know in response to a lawsuit filed last week. The agency must now follow conditions to improve public transparency.
Conservation advocacy group Wolves of the Rockies sued FWP saying they failed to produce public information when asked, and failed to properly notice and conduct public meetings. Marc Cooke, the group’s president says, "This vindicates us as an organization and helps level the playing field with the senior leadership at FWP, that they work for all Montanans and not just the special interest hunting organizations.”
FWP has agreed to a list of 10 terms as a remedy. Those include granting all public records requests submitted by Wolves of the Rockies at no cost for one year, and all seven members of the Fish and Wildlife Commission must forward any non-privileged emails they send pertaining to wolves or trapping.
That’s one of several requirements specifically for the Fish and Wildlife Commissioners, the seven people appointed by the governor to set regulations and pass rules for FWP.
Cooke said this lawsuit stems, in part, from a 2021 commission meeting where several commissioners corresponded beforehand to decide how they would vote on changing regulations to wolf hunting and trapping.
Their changes ultimately loosened the restrictions previously in place and their discussions violated Montana’s open meeting laws.
“We need to figure out a way to know what these commissioners are doing and who they're meeting organization wise because we have no clue. What happens is I'll go to a hearing and they’ll say, ‘well, we met with the Trappers Association’ and I'll say, ‘why didn't we know that?’” Cooke said.
Commissioners are also now required to post online all non-privileged emails and text messages they have written within two days before a commission meeting. They must publicly disclose at every commission meeting any communications they have with an interest group.
Greg Lemon with FWP told MTPR the agency prioritizes transparency and will follow these conditions to improve it. He also said FWP presented several of the terms agreed upon.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission’s next meeting is on Thursday, October 19.