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Something’s rotten at Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks

by By GEORGE OCHENSKI
| June 7, 2024 7:00 AM

Something’s very rotten in Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. 

A good guess would point to the Gianforte administration’s attitude toward informing the public about what’s wrong – or likely to go wrong – with the environment.  

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 sees Montana as a “product” to be sold as quickly as possible. 

The latest case involves Dr. Eileen Ryce, the Administrator of the Fisheries Division who was mysteriously placed on “administrative leave” as of May 17. As reported by the Missoula Current’s Laura Lundquist: “Sources inside FWP said Ryce was publicly escorted out of FWP headquarters in Helena on Friday. Sources asked that they not be identified out of fear of retaliation.”  

And when reporters asked for the reason, Gianforte’s appointee FWP director Dustin Temple, hid behind the administration’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” tact and has “refused requests for comment.”

Looking at Ryce’s performance running the Fisheries Division, some things stand out that might have something to do with the director’s action. Put bluntly, Ryce has been telling the truth about some fisheries issues that do not paint the Gianforte administration in a good light — especially in an election year.

Just recently Ryce released the agency’s analysis of the levels of toxic substances in the fish in the Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Blackfoot Rivers. The news was not good, to put it mildly. In a nutshell, the fish in the 148-mile stretch of the Clark Fork are so contaminated with the known and potent carcinogens PCB, dioxin and furans, that Ryce’s division has recommended not eating any of the fish since there is no “safe consumption level” for those toxins. 

Montanans owe Ryce a debt of gratitude for telling us the truth — and protecting not only our health, but especially that of our children.  Nonetheless, is seems apparent the Gianforte administration does not want the truth revealed when the state spends millions of dollars every year touting Montana as the trout mecca of the nation.  Nor is it the kind of news that speaks well of our regulatory agencies and the failure to heed the Montana Constitution’s “inalienable right to a clean and healthy environment.”  Just the opposite, in fact. 

Ryce’s truth-telling was highlighted earlier this year, too, when she appeared before a legislative interim committee and raised a red flag about the number of private ponds being permitted by the agency.  As Ryce detailed, the state has 10,000 private ponds already and is currently permitting at least 200 a year…basically one every working day for the agency. 

The concern is that those ponds are usually stocked with fish bought from both in-state and out-of-state private hatcheries. Shipping in fish from private hatcheries presents a significant chance for introducing diseases or non-native invasive species into state waters from the ponds, many of which are in flood plains close to major rivers. 

Montanans owe Ryce a debt of gratitude for that truth-telling, too.  Once invasive species or diseases are released in Montana waters it is very, very expensive and difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of them. 

Sure enough, just this week the department sent out an alert that it had discovered the first Mystery Snails in Montana near Finley Point on Flathead Lake.  Further proving Ryce’s concern for what gets dumped in private ponds, an angler reported catching a Dojo Loach, or “pond loach” native to East Asia, “in a small pond” near Bozeman.

Those who have been keeping track of the Gianforte administration’s approach to our environment, fish, and wildlife are well aware of the efforts to cut the public out of government decision-making with ever-shorter or totally non-existent opportunity for public review and comment.

All Montanans should be concerned when an honest and competent state employee like Ryce gets muzzled and put on administrative leave for telling the public the truth and raising red flags about potential disasters from private ponds and imported fish and diseases.  

Election year or not, nothing stinks worse than rotten fish — and right now, the stink is coming from the governor’s office and his Fish, Wildlife and Parks director.