Good fit, or unfit?

Meeting Schweitzer’s new man at FWP


Stephen Doherty belongs to the generation that practiced duck-and-cover drills in school back when the threat of an atomic bomb attack seemed real. As an adult he served a dozen years in the Montana Legislature. Consequently, he’s learned how to avoid explosions—atomic, verbal and legislative.

Doherty is Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s pick to head the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission. The day he was appointed he found himself dodging a bomb lobbed by the state Republican party, which sent out an “action alert” Jan. 6 criticizing Doherty as unfit to lead the commission. In it, the GOP called him a man beholden to environmental groups, and the holder of a “spotty record” on pro-sportsmen legislation. “Doherty’s appointment should be cause for alarm for both sportsmen, and farmers and ranchers,” states the memo.

On the other hand, the state’s oldest conservation group—Montana Conservation Voters—is more than pleased with Doherty’s appointment, noting that he scored 100 percent on its environmental agenda scorecard.

So who is this man who incurs both wrath and praise right out of the gate?

Doherty, 52, received his undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania and his law degree at Lewis and Clark law school in Portland, Ore., where he clerked for the Columbia River Intertribal Commission and the Montana attorney general. After graduating from law school he worked for a large Portland firm, but like many Montana kids who couldn’t wait to see Montana in the rear view mirror, he also couldn’t wait to return once he got a taste of life in small sky country.

Today, he’s in private practice at the law firm of Smith, Doherty and Bellcourt in his native Great Falls, where he represents Montana’s American Indian tribes. He ran for the state senate as a Democrat and was first elected in 1990. He served 12 years there, holding the positions of majority whip, minority whip and minority leader. In his lengthy Senate career, Doherty served on committees as diverse as taxation, education, rules, ethics and fish and game. He also served on the Environmental Quality Council and the Montana Electricity Transmission Advisory Committee following the debacle known as deregulation.

His long experience in Montana politics convinced him to throw his name in the hat for the chairmanship of the FWP Commission. Now that he’s got it, some Montanans are alternately fearful and hopeful that he’s going to steer the commission down a pro-environmental path.

Doherty describes himself as a hunter who took the state hunter safety course at the age of 12, a fisherman who flails at the water and a cross-country skier. His taped answering machine message gives him away as a Griz fan. And his years in the Montana Legislature taught him that if Montanans are passionate about anything, it’s their fish, their wildlife and their parks.

“One thing we get into a tizzy about in Montana is over our fish and game,” he says. “We take it seriously. We used to have a joke in the Legislature that anytime there was a simple fish and game bill it would take four hours of debate.” Why? “Because,” he says, “everybody knows something about fish and game. It’s the one thing that Montanans are deeply passionate about.”

Doherty insists his number-one concern as chairman will be the health of the “resource.” “I think the commission has got to be a strong advocate for the resource. That includes the critters, the habitat and the people.”

That last—people—should make the Montana Stockgrowers Association breathe a little easier. Executive Vice-President Steve Pilcher says the MSA has not taken a position on Doherty’s appointment. “Concerned” is too strong, says Pilcher, but the MSA will be “watching with interest” to see where Doherty takes the commission. “I know Steve personally from when he was in the Legislature,” Pilcher says. “We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.” Pilcher says it is critical that the commission understand and respect the role landowners play in supporting wildlife. He means that literally. More than 60 percent of the wildlife population depends on private land for survival at least a portion of the year, Pilcher says: “It’s easy to see the commission has to be committed to working with private landowners.”

Doherty agrees. “Sportsmen are going to have to partner up with landowners.”

The Republican Party is much more skeptical of Doherty’s appointment. Executive Director Chuck Denowh wrote the Jan. 6 memo urging the party faithful to write letters to the editor about “the anti-sportsmen and anti-property rights bent that the Schweitzer administration has already taken.” He says Doherty scored high on the Montana Conservation Voters environmental scorecard, agreeing with the group 93 percent of the time. Though Denowh acknowledges that there hasn’t been much sportsmen-related legislation in recent years, he says Doherty failed landowners on a big issue when he voted no on the “ask first” bill.

Craig Sharpe, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, says Doherty voted against the bill requiring hunters to ask permission before hunting on private land for a good reason. The bill made it difficult for bird hunters who often hunt on large tracts of land owned by nonresidents.

Sharpe is pleased with Doherty’s appointment, noting that in 2001 he scored 100 percent with the Montana Wildlife Federation, one of only six senators to ace the scorecard that year.

“He has been a strong sportsman’s advocate,” Sharpe says. “It’s about time we had someone like him.”


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