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The Fish and Wildlife Commission is looking pretty vacant

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John Sullivan found the early January meeting in Kalispell to be nothing short of "intense." Dozens of citizens showed up to weigh in on the Quiet Waters Initiative, a comprehensive revision of state river recreation rules proposed last year by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Sullivan says he once again had to set people straight on what his organization is and what it's suggesting.

"I think that there's some areas that are more contentious than others. One of our biggest challenges is the battling of misinformation that's being deliberately spread about our proposal."

When public comment on the initiative closes Feb. 12, Quiet Waters is poised to become a major springtime undertaking for the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission. The citizen board isn't expected to reach a decision until April at the earliest, and Sullivan has little doubt portions of Quiet Waters will be hotly debated or even rejected. What's even murkier is who will wind up making those calls.

Technically speaking, as of Jan. 1, four of the five seats on the commission charged with setting Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' rules and regulations are vacant. Commissioners Gary Wolfe, Richard Stuker and Matthew Tourtlotte reached the end of their terms on the first day of the year and, according to FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim, Wolfe and Tourtlotte don't intend to seek reappointment. A fourth seat representing northeast Montana and formerly occupied by Richard Kerstein has remained vacant for more than a year. On paper, chairman Dan Vermillion is all that remains.

Practical fact is a bit of a different story. Aasheim says that despite their terms having ended, Wolfe and Stuker will temporarily extend their stays and sit alongside Vermillion during the commission's next meeting on Feb. 10. What happens between then and the commission's next meeting, Aasheim adds, is entirely up to Gov. Steve Bullock. Members of the commission are appointed by the governor and approved by the state senate. Bullock's office did not respond to requests for information regarding when new appointees might be announced and why Kerstein's seat has been empty for so long.

For Sullivan, the uncertainty surrounding the commission—more specifically, who will represent specific parts of the state affected by Quiet Waters—is an added challenge. For now, all he can do is keep a close eye on the empty seats.

"It'll be a big deal," he says. "They'll end up deciding how it works. I trust that the commissioners, any replacements, will still represent their constituencies ... and pay attention to what those citizens want."

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