Gianforte fires operations chief of Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks - TAI News
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Greg Gianforte speaks during the 2017 Capitol Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

On June 7, Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks fired Operations Chief Mike Volesky, a move long expected. Volesky had been on “administrative leave” since October, a term frequently in play in recent months and viewed as a preface to firing. He is the most senior department official to be fired in what appears to be a purge of a department at odds with Gov. Greg Gianforte. The department did not return repeated phone calls to confirm the action, but Volesky did so in an email.

In May, Eileen Ryce, the department’s fisheries director, was publicly escorted out of the department’s headquarters in Helena when she was placed on administrative leave. The department gave no reason for that action.

In a column signed by biologists and respected, longtime advocates for wildlife in Montana, the authors wrote of Ryce: “She was one of the last of (Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Justin) Temple’s administration with a background in fish and wildlife science – in fact, a Ph.D. from MSU (Montana State University). Ryce was known for professionalism, open communication, and staunch defense of her staff – precisely the opposite of the reputations of Gianforte and Temple.”

There is reason to believe that much of this unrest is rooted in the administration’s distrust of science, favoritism toward the rich, and commercialization of wildlife. At least one department insider cited a foundational change in guidelines for approving scientific research. A document outlining new conditions for approval of research projects and signed by Temple in April states the matter bluntly, giving extra points to research that “Addresses concerns of vocal, influential or large constituency groups or has significant economic impacts.” 

The more high-profile case was detailed in recent reporting by the New York Times. Dave Loewen, the agency’s chief of law enforcement, was placed on administrative leave in July 2022 over his role in the handling of the controversial killing of a wolf by Gianforte himself. The department alleged Loewen fostered a hostile work environment, which he denies. He maintains the action was the result of his refusal to allow a cover-up of the governor’s culpability in the wolf incident.

These are not isolated cases. A legislative audit of the department in 2023 found it was plagued by low morale. The Missoula Current reported: “Employees inside FWP say that the findings on low morale and lack of trust aren’t limited to the law enforcement division. During the past three years, many experienced FWP employees have either left the department or been asked to leave. The brain-drain has been to the detriment of the state’s fish, wildlife and sportsmen and women.”

As its name implies, the department is responsible for all wildlife and the network of parks in the state, not just fish and game species. It plays a large role in the state’s quality of life.

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