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Legislative audit describes lack of trust, communication between FWP headquarters and game wardens

Wardens working for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks described a shift toward enforcement and administrative tasks that has moved the division toward a "cop" culture versus the "cowboy" culture most prefer, according to an audit the Legislative Audit Division released last week.

The audit, which was completed at the request of the bipartisan Legislative Audit Committee, also highlighted communication issues, waning morale and concerns about a lack of trust between the agency's headquarters in Helena and the 90-plus wardens working throughout the state.

"In interviews with wardens at every level, the discussion quickly turned to the idea of 'cops versus cowboys,'" according to the report. "There is a widespread perception that past leadership of the Enforcement Division wanted to move the division toward taking on more law enforcement duties typically handled by sheriff's offices and other law enforcement agencies. This includes a more active role in policing violations like drug and alcohol crimes on state lands ('cops'). Taking on more of these duties is seen in contrast to the traditional role of wardens in providing wildlife management, public outreach, and landowner relations ('cowboys')."

"[The majority] of wardens prefer a traditional role focusing on wildlife management and public outreach. This has led to conflicts surrounding seemingly insignificant decisions, such as changes to wardens' uniforms from denim to green pants," the report continued.

Activity logs included in the report describe less time spent on criminal investigation and park patrols between 2019 and 2021, despite an increase in recreational use of state lands and license sales, which can serve as a helpful proxy for the number of hunters and anglers pursuing fish and game in Montana. At the same time, the hours that the wardens reported spending on administrative tasks and training increased. That frustrated some wardens, who told auditors that proficiency with SmartCOP, a system similar to one used by Montana Highway Patrol to track wardens' responses, was valued more than "traditional warden activities."

Auditors described tension surrounding this shift and other cultural issues stemming from poor communication, a perceived bias and lack of transparency in hiring practices, and a retaliatory environment that discouraged lower-ranking wardens from offering viewpoints contrary to those held by the division's Helena-based leadership.

Thirty-eight wardens, or half of the survey's respondents, reported they experienced retaliatory behavior or intimidation from their division chief within the past five years. Wardens told auditors that "morale had taken a major hit" due to this dynamic.

Though not specifically named as the source of discontent, the chief referenced is likely former Enforcement Division Chief Dave Loewen, who retired in November after being placed on leave the prior July. Loewen started serving as the division's chief in January 2017 and was replaced by Ron Howell this past December.

Eric Seidle, content editor for the Legislative Audit Division, told Montana Free Press "early indications are that things have improved" with Howell at the helm. Survey results also bear this out: 74% of wardens reported that the division's culture had improved with the leadership change, and 70% said their ability to share concerns within their division has improved.

FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon said the department won't comment until FWP leadership and the auditors have an opportunity to discuss the report before the Legislative Audit Committee meeting on Oct. 5. Lemon also noted that there is a new human resources manager in place, a likely reference to other issues highlighted in the report, including the department's loss of performance reviews and high turnover, which "contributed to HR not being used as a resource by wardens," according to auditors.

About one-third of the audit focused on FWP's use of SmartCOP, a system that allows wardens to use laptops installed in their patrol vehicles to track their responses to various incidents. More than half of the 78 wardens who provided feedback to auditors said they don't understand the purpose of recording all activities in SmartCOP, which the agency started using in 2017. Just one-third of the wardens said they received adequate training to use SmartCOP.

Auditors reported that the information gleaned from the SmartCOP system was being used in "an ad-hoc manner" and indicated that there are likely errors in the data collected - enough that data from the system incorporated into the division's annual report "should be considered unreliable." That could make it difficult for both agency staff and lawmakers to make effective resource distribution decisions, the report said.

As is common practice for performance audits, FWP Director Dustin Temple was given an opportunity to respond to both the critiques and recommendations in the report. FWP concurred with all four recommendations that auditors made and highlighted in-process data management plans, an emphasis on "statutorily mandated duties" to "remove ambiguity about what wardens should be focusing on from day to day" and the launch of an annual culture survey it's coordinating with Montana State University.

Temple also said the department will not enter into or renew memorandums of understanding for enforcement authority with local governments, such as county sheriff's offices. "Wardens encountering these types of crimes outside their authority have been instructed to contact the appropriate agency of jurisdiction for their assistance and response if necessary."

Seidle, with the Legislative Audit Division, said the division will conduct a follow-up to the audit within six to 12 months, as is standard practice for such reports.

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