Whether the numbers reflect those trying a new outdoor activity for the first time or someone rediscovering a former pursuit, Lemon and others believe there will be some staying power.
At the same time Montana’s hotline for reporting fish, wildlife and other recreation violations — 1-800-TIP-MONT — has seen a steady increase in calls and online reporting in recent years, said FWP Enforcement Chief Dave Loewen.
Reports that resulted in law enforcement action increased from about 3,700 in 2019 to nearly 4,100 in 2020, a jump of nearly 11%. Total reports increased by about one-third, from about 5,100 to 6,800. The category that surged the most included calls related to aquatic invasive species, or AIS, jumping 114% from 270 to 579 in a single year.
“We’ve seen a surge in law enforcement calls with the incredible increase in visitation in 2020,” Loewen said. “Fishing access sites, state parks, the amount of people using those increased dramatically. AIS was another big surge.”
Game wardens have historically served in capacities outside of law enforcement, but the ever-increasing demand for enforcement-related responses has meant less time for non-enforcement work. On the AIS front, FWP tries to staff wardens at AIS inspection stations to ensure mandated stops by those transporting watercraft, Loewen said.
FWP did see some additional employees come to the agency starting in 2017 with the AIS program, but has not requested additional wardens in the latest budget. The agency will examine its enforcement staffing levels during the 2023 legislative session, he said.