The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks has begun a significant restructuring including the hiring of new upper management that will oversee a gamut of responsibilities from statewide site maintenance to recreation management.
Director Hank Worsech is pushing the change, which includes shifting several programs into a new FWP Parks and Recreation Division. Under new administrator Hope Stockwell, the division includes Montana State Parks; maintenance of sites including state parks, fishing access sites and wildlife management areas; and all of the department’s recreation and access programs including Block Management, trail grants and recreation planning such as work on the Madison River.
FWP has roughly 725 employees and is largely decentralized. The agency’s headquarters is in Helena but seven offices are centered in regions throughout the state, each with its own supervisor, fish, wildlife and parks managers and game wardens.
In appearing before the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board this week, Worsech described a framework for the changes but believes many of the details will come from field staff. The idea for a reorganization is not new, but the increase in recreation in Montana as a major factor in implementing changes now, he said.
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“The idea was to figure out a way to do this that’s more efficient and more effective, and with the understanding that with the changing Montana and people are discovering it, and moving more and more to it, the recreation as anyone can attest to in parks, has gone through the roof on visitation,” he told the board. “So it’s more than just the hunting and fishing part, but it is the hunting, fishing and recreation, parks and recreation.”
While sites such as fishing access sites might be funded through license sales, they often see plenty of use for non-fishing recreation. With an ever-increasing demand for outdoor recreation including annual visitation records at state parks, Worsech and FWP chief of staff Quentin Kujala said in an interview that FWP needed to mold itself to the reality on the ground.
One issue Worsech wants to change is what he sees as redundant maintenance, portraying a scene where a state parks maintenance crew coming up a road passes a fisheries or wildlife maintenance crew coming down the road. Why should a region have three backhoes for parks, fisheries and wildlife, he asked rhetorically.
“My whole mantra is we are one FWP, we are one agency,” he said.
A consolidated maintenance crew would be responsible for all sites under the changes. Worsech also believes the changes may alleviate some maintenance absorbed by other staff, giving the example of a conversation he had with a wildlife biologist that had spent time fixing fence on a wildlife management area.
When asked about potential impacts of moving programs previously under wildlife or fisheries to a more recreation focused division, both Worsech and Kujala indicated that divisions will be expected to work with each other. The changes will not take away biologists’ decisions on wildlife and habitat management, he said.
“There will be no decisions made on wildlife management areas that don’t have a wildlife part of it and the same with fisheries,” Worsech said. “If there’s anything that makes a decision for wildlife management, like winter range or anything like that, it’s going to be the biologist making that call.”
Kujala went a step further, saying that he believed the changes would help continue focus on biology in the face of booming recreation.
“It’s the department responding to recreation’s rise outside of the agency, out on Montana’s landscape, and the department doing what it can to meet that increased demand and making sure the biology, taking care of the resource, isn’t lost,” he said.
Stockwell detailed some proposals on how the new division will be structured but said work will continue through the fall and winter. That includes a stewardship bureau for maintenance and capital projects as well as an access and landowner relations bureau housing access programs and grants.
In Helena, Stockwell described a “leadership triangle” of state parks administrator Beth Shumate and longtime FWP staffer Charlie Sperry. In FWP’s seven administrative regions, regional maintenance managers will be in place and state parks managers will see job duties change to incorporate recreation. Stockwell acknowledged that “change is always uncomfortable,” and that some discussions around the changes will likely be hard.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.