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FWP employee fired three months after being cleared of hunting-without-permission charge

Former longtime operations chief Volesky alleges 'political discrimination' played a role in the termination of his employment

Longtime Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks employee Michael Volesky, of Helena, is alleging that the department's recent decision to fire him is politically motivated.

Volesky, who most recently served as chief of operations for FWP, told Montana Free Press the department had no defensible cause for terminating his employment last week, especially after a county attorney dropped the hunting-without-permission charge that purportedly led the department to place Volesky on extended administrative leave in October.

The agency fired Volesky last Monday, June 10, three months after Lewis and Clark County Deputy Attorney Deanna Rothwell dropped the charge that had spurred the agency's review into Volesky's employment.

In a brief statement to MTFP, FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon said the termination was the result of a "thorough investigation by an outside, independent investigator." Lemon declined to provide additional information.

Volesky told MTFP the department maligned him in the press by making "disparaging conjectures" related to the charge, which stemmed from a 2023 hunting trip in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest southeast of Lincoln.

Details of that hunt are included in a motion to dismiss that Volesky's attorney submitted to Lewis and Clark County District Court.

On Sept. 29, Volesky used Forest Service Road 1890 (sometimes referred to on maps as Road 601-E-1) to access National Forest land to hunt. Tom Burgess, who owns a 20-acre inholding through which Forest Service Road 1890 passes, alerted law enforcement to Volesky's use of the road, arguing that it amounted to trespassing.

A week later, FWP Chief of Enforcement Ron Howell summoned Volesky to his office to discuss Burgess' accusation.

During that meeting, as recounted in Volesky's legal filing, Volesky explained to Howell that he and Burgess share "personal history." Burgess is Volesky's former brother-in-law. Though the two once jointly purchased a boat for shared use, relations between them have been strained for more than a decade, Volesky told MTFP.

Later that day, Howell issued a citation to Volesky for failure to obtain landowner permission for hunting, a misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $500. The following week, department leadership placed Volesky on paid administrative leave.

Volesky's attorney presented two arguments in the motion to dismiss. The first is that Forest Service Road 1890 "was not then and is not now private property," having been open to the public since 1883. The second is that even if the road were closed to public use, Tom Burgess' now-deceased father, Hank Burgess, had explicitly granted Volesky permission to use the road for hunting, a privilege that "does not permit future owners of the property to revoke access granted by Hank."

On March 13, the day after Volesky's attorney submitted the motion to dismiss, Rothwell dropped the charges against Volesky in a one-page document.

Rothwell did not respond to MTFP's request for additional information about the county's reasons for dropping the charge.

Volesky argues that the department relied on a "tortured legal explanation" to underpin its decision to place him on leave and clung to that logic even when the charges didn't stick.

"Other wardens have told me, 'We would never issue a citation in this situation. We just never win on those,'" Volesky said. "No other employee I know of has even been disciplined for such a thing."

Should the department successfully apply the logic it used to fire Volesky in its treatment of other contested roads and trails, recreationists across the state stand to lose much of the public land access they currently enjoy, Volesky argues.

At issue is the public's use of roads and trails that lack recorded easements, which appear on a property title. Though not codified in writing, public use of such rights-of-way to access Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management land via "unperfected" or "historic" easements is common across the West.

"That easement issue was such a canard - so wrong and so irrelevant," Volesky said. "The department has conjured up this tortured legal explanation of, 'Oh, no, it's really not determined, so you should have known better.' Well, then, it's not determined on thousands of places. That's true of thousands of places in Montana on state and federal land."

Volesky argues that such a conclusion is "preposterous."

"If this were to become a big case and become precedent, people across Montana would become unglued," he said.

Asked for insight regarding department leadership's desire to terminate his employment, Volesky said he thinks it's related to "political discrimination" - more specifically, his tenure working on natural resource issues for the Democratic governors who preceded Montana's current governor, Greg Gianforte, a Republican. In 2004, Volesky was a natural resource policy adviser to Brian Schweitzer. Eight years later, when Steve Bullock was in office, Volesky became deputy director of FWP. He later transitioned to chief of operations.

Volesky said he suspects that lawmakers and politically powerful individuals with differing views about carnivore management, elk tag allocation, bison management, and land access and acquisition - "all of those controversial issues" - leaned on Gianforte and the FWP directors Gianforte has appointed to remove employees who worked on those issues when Schweitzer and Bullock helmed the state's executive branch.

Asked for a response to that assertion, Giaforte spokesperson Kaitlin Price referred MTFP to FWP, which didn't address the question directly.

Beyond noting that the investigation that preceded Volesky's firing was conducted by an independent investigator, Lemon said the agency couldn't provide additional information about a personnel matter.

Volesky's firing comes as the department is receiving increasing public scrutiny for the departure of longtime employees in leadership positions.

Former Chief of Enforcement Dave Loewen retired in November 2022 after being placed on administrative leave four months prior for allegedly creating a hostile work environment. Loewen received $150,000 as part of a legal agreement with the state, which included Loewen's pledge not to sue for further damages or disparage the state.

In May, FWP Fisheries Chief Eileen Ryce was placed on administrative leave under unclear circumstances. Within two weeks of that decision, which reportedly involved Ryce being "publicly escorted" out of the agency's headquarters, a GoFundMe account was established to help pay for Ryce's "expected legal expenses."

Lemon did not respond to MTFP's questions regarding Ryce's employment at the agency. She has worked at the department for 20 years and became fisheries chief in 2016.

As of June 19, more than $12,000 had been contributed to the GoFundMe account by 162 individual donors. Former FWP Fisheries Chief Christopher Hunter, former Deputy Director Ronald Marcoux, and Larry Peterman, who became chief of operations after leading FWP's fisheries division, have contributed to Ryce's cause.

Asked for information on the circumstances surrounding the agency's decision to put her on administrative leave, Ryce connected MTFP with her attorney, Murry Warhank, who responded that he "cannot comment on Eileen's situation at this time."

FWP is currently being audited by the Legislative Audit Division, which shared with lawmakers on Monday that its review of the department's human resources work will focus on the hiring, supervising and disciplining of staff between fiscal years 2019 and 2023.

In addition to interviewing current and former agency managers, auditors will review 50 randomly selected performance evaluations, documentation associated with 60 randomly selected hiring decisions, and settlement agreements the agency reached with former employees. State auditors are expected to deliver a report next year.

FWP has an annual budget of approximately $110 million and employs a staff of about 750 full-time employees.

This article was originally published at http://www.montanafreepress.org.

 
 
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