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Hungry bear falls victim to
Game Warden wage dispute

October 28, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Patricia Swan Smith
For the Pathfinder

A garbage-eating bear was shot last week after being caught up in a contract dispute between Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department and the field wardens, who are working without a contract and many are out of hours, according local Game Warden Bill Koppen.

The bear had been in the area for some time, but seldom are bears killed because they are getting into garbage.

"This was not fair to the bear," Koppen said. "But I as a warden had to tell the caller I was out of hours and could not respond. We were instructed to do that. I gave him a Missoula number to call."

After a call to Missoula, the caller was then instructed to find someone with a tag and shoot the bear, according to Koppen.

"I was very disappointed," Koppen said. "We should have had a contract signed before season opened. The animals and the people will end up paying for this mess.

"And, while we wardens will not be able to put in as much time in the field during big game season or respond to a lot of other calls, I hope that the people will not just give up and stop calling Missoula until this thing is settled."

The contract between the state's 65 game wardens and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks expired June 30.

While contract negotiations have broken down, the wardens do not have plans to strike, Koppen said.

"We don't really want to go on strike," he said. "The wildlife would suffer from that, and when you really care about your job it's hard to allow things like that to happen. We just want to be able to make a living.

"I've been a warden for 11 years and I make $15 an hour. I can't see being able to put my kids through college on that. My wife said that the beautiful sunsets aren't cutting it anymore, the wages and expectations of my job aren't worth it."

During the last legislative session, a bill that provided raises of approximately nine percent for highway patrol officers was approved, according to Union Representative Mel Wojcik. The wardens are being represented by Montana Public Employees Association out of Helena.

He said that the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks had the opportunity to present this same bill for the wardens, but had chosen not to do so.

FWP Director Pat Graham said that they have not traditionally used the legislative process to deal with the wage process, and they are trying to work on those issues with other alternatives.

Another blow came to the wardens in late September when they tried to get a change of grade for their job description from a 14 to a 15, which would have given the wardens an approximate nine percent raise, Koppen said.

But according to Wojcik, while that proposal was approved at the department level at FWP, it was then rejected by the Department of Administration of FWP.

The state is offering the wardens the same 3 percent raise that was approved by the Legislature for all state employees, but that raise would not go into effect until the wardens sign a contract.

The wardens were also offered to earn up to 120 extra hours per year in compensation time, and up to 72 hours in discretionary pay which would be paid on the wardens' regular salary base, not time-and-a-half.

These offers were not accepted by the wardens.

According to Koppen, the wardens were asking for approval of 100 hours of paid overtime and that the state buy back 24 hours of comp time already accumulated.

FWP denied those requests.

Wojcik said that he hopes the state will conduct a market survey regarding the wages in other states so they can look at how other wardens are paid and come up with a better offer.

He said he believes that some information concerning a market survey could be available in about two weeks, and that discussions could open again.

"A market survey is being conducted," Graham said. "Not just for wardens, but for other classifications and professions within the agency."

He said that he also believes there will be information available within two weeks, and that the department is anxious to get negotiations open again.

The last negotiations were held Monday, October 18th, and approximately 34 of the 65 wardens attended.

"I don't think anybody benefits without a signed contract, and we're ready to go back to the table anytime," Graham said.

Graham also said that the wage issue is complex, and it could take months and possibly years to get both short and long-term wage issue addressed.

For now, the wardens will continue to work their districts without a contract. Koppen's district is approximately 1,500 square miles. Some districts have up to 3,000 acres.

Wardens are law enforcement personnel. The wardens patrol and work year-round fishing seasons, watercraft and snowmobile activities, and hunting seasons that run from September 1 through December.

Last year the wardens made over 100,000 contacts and dealt with close to 7,000 violations. Many of the wardens continue to work overtime even after their hours are used up.

They also work with public education programs, conduct check stations, decoy operations, spotlight patrols, game sales, equipment maintenance, collect biological samples, pick up roadkill and respond to dispatches for wounded animals to name a few of their duties.

According to memos and enforcement activity plans given to the wardens in October, they are being asked to work 80 hours per two-week pay period, and instruct the public to call Missoula instead of the wardens. During office hours, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. the public is instructed to call (406) 542-5500, and for game violations call 1-800-TIP-MONT, or the Region Two violation report line at (406) 542-5533.

"The wardens are doing their best to maintain while not being demoralized," Wojcik said. "They are working in good faith and doing the best they can."

Graham said that he hopes this is settled as quickly as possible, and that he believes Montana has well trained and professional game wardens in the field who will continue to work hard during the big game season.

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