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Given the opportunity to tell a prospective Montana governor about their priorities and concerns, Ravalli County commissioners focused on wolves - and the impact wolves have had on the Bitterroot Valley.

On Friday morning, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill visited with county commissioners and 12 members of the public, including a state legislator or two, in an effort to learn about local issues. Hill said he's met with city and county leaders across the state in order to establish priorities for his governorship, should he win the GOP nomination in June and the general election in November.

"I'm trying to understand what things we need to do to unleash Montana's economy," Hill said. "I'm here to listen to what you have to say about what the state of Montana can do to make Ravalli County a better place."

For the next 25 minutes or so, what the commissioners had to say dealt mainly with wolves.

"We have a huge amount of forested land and a limited amount of businesses and to be impacted by a state department on predator management, which is what I think we have with wolves ... a lot of things have been going on that really harmed our economy," said Commissioner Suzy Foss.

Foss brought up other national resource issues as well, saying that mining and timber extraction are over-regulated, and complaining that forest fires are a big problem because of the smoke from a "let-it-burn policy."

"Our state does a much better job of managing our forests," Foss said. "I'd like to see our state have a very strong conversation, telling the Forest Service, ‘Listen to us and start managing these forests.' "

Hill asked specific questions about elk hunting and the connection to wolves. Foss said residents are not hunting here because "there is no game," but couldn't confirm wolves were to blame.

Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher clarified that the wolf isn't the only contributor to elk population swings.

"They're doing a study right now to look at that, but I look at it as the straw that broke the camel's back," Kanenwisher said.

Commissioner J.R. Iman said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is a reactive organization.

"We let one species go totally unchecked way longer than it should have," Iman said. "We need to find a way to get back into balance."

Hill reassured the commissioners, saying he thought it was a mistake to introduce wolves and their numbers need to be brought down to the minimum.

Hill said he thinks the governor should weigh in on all federal land management decisions, but it will take additional resources in the governor's office. Hill is familiar with such decisions because he served on the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee while he was a U.S. representative between 1997 and 2000.

Commissioner Greg Chilcott eventually turned the conversation to county economic issues, addressing a number of costs and responsibilities that have been shuffled down to the local level. By way of example, he said counties must pay $500 a year toward veterans' burials without any state contribution. Also, counties have to pay to maintain roads leading to state lands.

"We need the partnership that you talked about earlier, not lip service," Chilcott said.

Chilcott also objected to the elimination of area rural development officers, part of an outreach program that helped counties find funding and resources to promote local economies. As a cost-cutting measure, eight or so offices were eliminated and only one remains in Helena.

"To get any information, you have to go through Helena," Chilcott said. "Who ends up with those benefits are those closest to Helena."

Hill said he ascribes to the notion that most problems are not because government doesn't do enough but because it does too much, particularly in regulation. But he acknowledged that the state could do more in the area of the economy and he thinks that should be the job of the lieutenant governor.

"I think what I hear you saying is that we need better coordination between county government and the state of Montana," Hill said. "And I really agree with you."

Reach reporter Laura Lundquist at 363-3300 or