The ability to comment on proposed state and federal government regulations is an important right for all Americans. Since we live in a republic, not a direct democracy, public comment helps our representatives make informed decisions on our behalf.
No one expects public comment to be the equivalent of voting. But even so, public comment should not be ignored. After all, if our representatives just did what they pleased, they could hardly be considered representatives. This is especially true when government officials are appointed, not elected.
But if public comment isn’t voting, is there some percentage where public officials are morally obligated to put aside their preformed opinions and abide by the wishes of their constituents? If 60 percent is a supermajority, certainly 70 percent is a mandate, and ignoring anything over that percentage would make a mockery of the process.
What if our representatives passed a new regulation that disregarded the wishes of 90 percent of all public comments? Now that would be extreme! Yet that is exactly what the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commissioners did last year.
In May of 2012, Montana FWP asked for public comments on proposed wolf killing regulations that for the first time would allow trapping. And boy did Americans speak out! Of the 7,750 comments registered, 6,997 opposed trapping. That’s 90 percent saying “no” to trapping!
Later, without publicly acknowledging the results or even indicating the general viewpoint of the public comments, our FWP commissioners voted 4 to 0 (with one abstention) to open up wolves to the barbaric practice of trapping.
What an insult to the public comment process! Not only does it prove that the FWP commissioners had already made up their minds, but it also discourages citizens from making public comments in the future. After all, if such an overwhelming landslide of comments had no effect on this decision, when would public comments ever have an effect on any decision?
Had the commissioners at least been honest enough to admit they were ignoring the thoughtful comments so many people had taken time to write, appropriate political pressure might have rectified the situation. Unfortunately, the injustice wasn’t discovered until Footloose Montana was able to count the comments, long after the damage was done. As a result, not only were wolves callously tortured, so were many family pets.
Since the terms have expired for three of the five commissioners involved, asking for resignations is impractical. Consequently, all we can do now is look forward to next season and demand that the new FWP Commission follow the wishes of the vast majority of the public. Should they ignore us again, Governor Steve Bullock must take appropriate action.
In the meantime, the first action taken by the new Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission should be an out-loud reading of their own website, where it states: “We understand that serving the people of Montana to achieve this vision is both a privilege and a responsibility. We also understand that we cannot achieve our vision alone. . . . We will actively involve people in decisions that affect them; help people to participate by providing them with credible and objective information; and, develop programs with a clear understanding of public expectations for FWP service.”