Something is rotten at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks

Photo by Jack Murray

Something is going very wrong at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

A good guess might point to the Gianforte administration's attitude toward informing the public about environmental problems — or what's likely to go wrong. But “don't ask, don't tell” is a dead-end strategy for the state's future — and a damning trademark of a governor who views Montana as a “product” that must be sold as quickly as possible.

The latest case involves Dr. Eileen Ryce, the head of the fisheries division, who was mysteriously placed on “administrative leave” on May 17. Laura Lundquist of the Missoula Current reported, “Sources within the FWP said Ryce was publicly escorted out of FWP headquarters in Helena on Friday. The sources asked that their identities not be revealed for fear of retaliation.” And when reporters asked why, Gianforte's appointed FWP director, Dustin Temple, hid behind the administration's “don't ask, don't tell” tactics and “declined requests for comment.”

Looking at Ryce's performance as head of the Fisheries Department, a few things stand out that may have something to do with the director's approach. Frankly, Ryce has told the truth on some fisheries issues that do not paint the Gianforte administration in a good light – especially in an election year.

Ryce recently released the agency's analysis of the levels of toxic substances in fish in the Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Blackfoot rivers. The news was not good, to say the least. In short, the fish in the 148-mile stretch of the Clark Fork are so contaminated with the known and potent carcinogens PCBs, dioxins and furans that Ryce's department has recommended against eating the fish because there is no “safe level” for these toxins.

Montanans owe Ryce a debt of gratitude for telling us the truth and protecting not only our health, but more importantly, our children's health. Yet it seems obvious that the Gianforte administration is not willing to expose the truth when the state spends millions of dollars each year touting Montana as the nation's trout mecca. Nor is it news that speaks well of our regulators and their disregard for the “inalienable right to a clean and healthy environment” enshrined in the Montana Constitution. Quite the opposite.

Ryce's honesty was also evident earlier this year when she appeared before a House interim committee and cited the number of private ponds approved by the agency as a red flag. As Ryce detailed, the state already has 10,000 private ponds and currently approves at least 200 per year — basically one per workday for the agency.

The problem is that these ponds are usually stocked with fish purchased from private fish farms both in the state and from other states. Transporting fish from private fish farms poses a significant risk of disease or non-native invasive species from the ponds entering state waters, many of which are located in flood plains near major rivers.

Montanans also owe Ryce a debt of gratitude for telling the truth. Once invasive species or diseases enter Montana waters, it is very, very expensive and difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of them.

And in fact, just this week, the agency issued an alert that it had discovered the first apple snails in Montana near Finley Point on Flathead Lake. Ryce's concern about what is being dumped in private ponds is further highlighted when an angler reported catching a Dojo peacock loach, a “pond loach” native to East Asia, “in a small pond” near Bozeman.

Anyone who follows the Gianforte administration's treatment of our environment, our fish stocks and our wildlife is aware of the efforts to exclude the public from government decisions by reducing or eliminating opportunities for public inspection and comment.

All Montanans should be alarmed when an honest and competent public employee like Ryce is silenced and placed on leave for telling the public the truth and raising the alarm about potential disasters from private ponds, imported fish and disease.

Election year or not, nothing smells worse than rotten fish — and right now, the stench is coming from the governor's office and his director of fisheries, wildlife and parks.

Anna Harden

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