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Fish, Wildlife and Parks appeals ethics knock over trailer loan

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The recent holiday season brought a bit of bad news for Trap Free Montana Public Lands. Shortly before Christmas, executive director K.C. York received word that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks had set to work trying to overturn an ethics decision handed down by Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl. Now, York is framing the situation as a "David versus Goliath case" that pits a grassroots nonprofit against a state agency that commands an annual budget of more than $75 million.

"This isn't a trapping issue," York says. "It's about democracy. It's about the law, responsibility, accountability, public duty."

Motl's late-November ruling sought to resolve a kerfuffle over the Montana Trappers Association's use of an FWP-owned trailer during the 2014 election. While on loan to the association that summer, FWP's trailer and the furbearer displays inside appeared at three separate events alongside material opposing a trapping ban ballot initiative carried by York's organization. York argued that the trailer's presence gave the impression FWP stood against the initiative, which ultimately failed to gain enough signatures to make the ballot. Motl agreed that the agency had not taken adequate measures to ensure its property wasn't used for political purposes, pointing out that "no one in the FWP can account for the whereabouts, specific use of or possession of the FWP trailer and displays" from September 2013 through late 2014. Motl fined FWP $1,500.

"Rather than FWP coming forward now and paying the piper, if you will, and righting these wrongs and fulfilling their duty to all Montanans, they're appealing," York says.

FWP Legal Counsel Zach Zipfel counters that the agency's appeal, foreshadowed during the October hearing that preceded Motl's decision, was never about the money. Rather, FWP believes Motl strayed too far from the plain language of Montana ethics code in assigning the agency blame. The agency's appeal petition also rebuffs Motl's claim that all third-party use of state property requires a written contract, and emphasizes the lack of evidence regarding any knowledge or authorization of the trappers association's actions by FWP staff until after the fact.

"It's never been our contention that what happened should have happened," Zipfel says. "It's just our position that it didn't violate the state ethics code."

Despite having "wiped out" its finances trying to reach a settlement with FWP last year, York confirms that Trap Free Montana was recently able to secure legal representation for the appeal process. She's confident her organization will come out on top, but fears the battle has already threatened the prospect of any lasting relationship with the agency.

"It's unfortunate, because we are trying to get a seat at the table," York says. "Wildlife belongs to all Montanans, and this comes across more like trying to shut us out the door rather than take any responsibility or accountability for what happened."

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Trailer hitch"

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