Gianforte announces leadership change at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
June 15, 2023
Gov. Greg Gianforte announced Friday that Henry "Hank" Worsech is retiring as director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the agency charged with managing Montana's wildlife and 55 state parks.
Dustin Temple, who's been serving as the agency's acting director, will take Worsech's place overseeing the department. Worsech, who'd been on medical leave since February, is retiring from FWP for a second time. Prior to taking the director post, Worsech served as the agency's license bureau chief. He also formerly served as the executive director of the Board of Outfitters, which handles licensing issues.
"It's been an honor and a pleasure to lead FWP and be a part of the governor's administration," Worsech said in a statement. "I'm proud of what we've accomplished as a department, from working to reestablish public trust, to being a straightforward partner and honest broker with folks, to improving the agency's culture. We couldn't have done it without Dustin, and I couldn't be leaving the department in better hands."
Temple, a Carbon County native who joined the department in 2004, served as the agency's chief of administration before taking the deputy director position in 2021.
Temple said in the statement that it's an honor to serve the agency and that he's humbled by Gianforte's confidence in him.
"Just as Hank has, we'll deliver on the governor's vision for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks - to serve Montanans well, provide sound science and reliable information to policymakers, and protect our Montana way of life for generations of Montanans to come," Temple said.
Under Worsech's tenure, the department has been criticized as overly deferential toward large landowners and outfitters. Public land hunters and representatives from the non-consumptive community - those more interested in the intrinsic value of wildlife rather than hunting, trapping or fishing for them - expressed frustration with Worsech's handling of contentious wildlife management issues.
After a proposal to significantly alter elk tag allocations garnered hours of impassioned testimony at a December 2021 Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting, Worsech pledged to bring more transparency and public input to the process. Shortly thereafter, FWP convened a citizen's elk management advisory group, which released a series of recommendations in 2022 seeking to address long-standing tension pertaining to elk-predator dynamics, forage loss, crowding on public land and other landowner, outfitter and public hunter concerns.
Other issues that have focused a spotlight on Worsech and the agency include FWP's support of a $1 million farmed pheasant program operated by the Montana State Prison and billed as a hunter-recruitment program, a series of licensing mishaps, and the recent release of a draft plan to guide management of grizzly bears in the event of federal delisting.
Before lawmakers and commissioners, Worsech occasionally cited the importance of the public trust doctrine approach of wildlife management. The department should serve as an information source and then carry out the vision of policymakers - e.g., the executive and legislative branches of government - rather than steer wildlife management objectives, Worsech told Montana Free Press in a February 2021 conversation about bison management.
"A lot of that's going to come from the Legislature - they're the policymakers, really. We follow the law," he said.
Worsech also stressed the importance of the "social dimension" in wildlife conservation conversations and sought to build a culture of customer service and accountability at the agency.
Pat Byorth, a Bozeman resident who spent the better part of two decades with the department as a fisheries biologist and later joined the Fish and Wildlife Commision under former Gov. Steve Bullock, said he noticed a shift in Montana's reputation in the region under Worsech's tenure.
While Montana used to be a leader in the West for an approach that favored science and conservation over the unpredictability of politics, Byorth told MTFP that he's heard from biologists, commissioners and administrators in other states that that reputation is sliding.
Chris Servheen, a bear biologist who formerly led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's grizzly recovery effort and now chairs the Montana Wildlife Federation board, said he is hopeful that Temple will bring more "openness and cooperation" to the agency.
Servheen said his organization is still waiting on information it requested pertaining to the number of animals that have been unintentionally captured in traps set for wolves. MWF requested that information six months ago, Servheen said, adding that those figures used to be readily available.
"Montana is known for its wildlife, so this is a critical position," Servheen added. "We're committed to the future of wildlife in Montana and we're hopeful we can work with FWP and its new director."