Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks sources revealed Wednesday that Wildlife Administrator Ken McDonald has been assigned several responsibilities.
McDonald would now lead a “habitat lease program”. Sources were given anonymity because they could lose their jobs.
On Thursday, FWP spokesman Greg Lemon said McDonald would still fill the wildlife chief position, however “the habitat leasing program is his top priority.”
“At times that may mean he has to pull in other leaders within the wildlife division to help with other management-type tasks. However, he is still the manager of the wildlife division and will be responsible for determining how the division works and personnel can best be managed,” Lemon said in an email.
McDonald has been the head of the wildlife division, or manager, for at least a dozen years. Many have become familiar with him for his many appearances before Legislative committees, speaking for or against various bills or simply providing information on legislation that may affect Montana’s wildlife.
The 2021 legislative session was the first session where Director Hank Worsech banned staff from testifying on bills so McDonald was less visible.
However, others know him for the countless meetings related to specific species, such as the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee or Interagency Bison Management Plan meetings, where he represented FWP.
McDonald’s longevity as agency chief has many wondering what prompted the sudden reassignment. Often, a reassignment signals the FWP leadership’s displeasure with a particular employee. Because they cannot fire an employee without cause, they put the employee in a lower position.
For example, in 2015, Arnie Death was removed from his position as the endangered and threatened species coordinator where he had spent years trying to establish a wild bison herd in Montana. This was before the tribes of Montana began to get their own herds, and bison were still limited to Yellowstone National Park and the National Bison Range.
Dood regularly faced fierce opposition from Montana ranchers who fear bison transmitting brucellosis to their livestock, even though each are the main disease vectors.
After Dood applied for Region 3 supervisor in 2014 but didn’t get the job, FWP leadership demoted him to oversee brucellosis management in the Paradise Valley. Because he had already worked with FWP for 40 years, Dood resigned instead.
More recently, in December, was former Region 2 Wildlife Manager Mike Thompson suddenly relieved of his duties while in the midst of trying to reorganize deer and elk hunting seasons. Without notice, Worsech gave him a 20-day suspension.
“My suspension cited ‘failure to adequately supervise my direct reports’ and ‘breach of chain of command.’ I didn’t know we were at war. People who know me would – and have – acknowledged that my crimes are well within the norm of my 41 years of FWP service. I am not hard to correct. A direct conversation would have sufficed have,” Thompson wrote in a January 12 Missoulian letter.
With that, Thompson also stepped down.
FWP is now suffering the loss of many experienced wildlife managers and biologists. Many have resigned or moved on in the past year as Worsech instituted policies and programs that have little to do with science, making it difficult for dedicated biologists to do their jobs.
Now that the fauna division also only has a part-time head, some are worried that Worsech may make changes to further reduce the division. Instead of leaving wildlife as its own division, Worsech is rumored to be considering moving what’s left of the Wildlife Division under the new Parks and Recreation division as part of his reorganization of FWP. He has already moved access to fishing grounds and wildlife management areas under Parks and Recreation.
This can have harmful consequences for a department that was once a national leader in wildlife management. It can internal efforts to conserve and protect species that are not as popular as big game, such as grizzly bears, wolves and bison.
Meanwhile, it’s still unclear how a part-time chief can lead a wildlife division that manages the widest range of species in the contiguous 48 states. For FWP biologists, it appears that McDonald is the second employee to lose part of his leadership position. Like former Parks chief Beth Shumate was demoted to assistant administrator when Worsech hired Hope Stockwell from the Montana Legislature to run the Parks and Recreation Division.
The reference to managing a “habitat lease program” means that McDonald oversees Worsech’s modified version of the Habitat Montana program. The Habitat Montana program used to get a certain allocation of sportsmen’s dollars — about $2 million a year — to buy conservation easements or fee-titled land for wildlife habitat. Certain lawmakers oppose FWP acquiring more land, so some bills have temporarily limited Habitat Montana to buying only conservation easements.
Now, however, Worsech is creating a new leasing program so that Habitat Montana money is spent on short-term habitat leases, a program that is potentially more expensive and less sustainable than conservation easements. But it is in line with Worsech’s policy to prioritize landowners over sportsmen.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com