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New law gives sportsmen groups control of Game & Fish Commission

Some of Arizona’s most prominent sportsmen organizations decided that former Gov. Janet Napolitano didn’t take their interests seriously when she appointed a non-hunter to the Arizona Game & Fish Commission.

It’s unlikely to happen again.

Hunting and sportsmen organizations spearheaded a bill during the 2010 legislative session that created a new board that will recommend nominees to the Game & Fish Commission. The board will vet applicants for the commission and forward its recommendations to the governor.

Environmentalist and conservation groups railed against SB1200 when Gov. Jan Brewer signed it in April, saying the qualifications for the recommendation board make it nearly impossible for a future governor to appoint a commissioner who would oppose the sportsmen’s interests.

Stacking the recommendation board in favor of hunting and sportsmen groups will lock out conservationists from the Game and Fish Commission, critics said. From now on, hunters and anglers on the commission will have unimpeded authority to loosen wildlife regulations such as restrictions on the lengths of hunting seasons and the number of hunting tags that get distributed.

“This is going to be a special interest takeover of the Game and Fish,” said former Game & Fish Commissioner Tom Woods. “They feel that since hunting is their primary interest, and to some extent angling and fishing, that they should have total control of the agenda.”

Commissioner Jack Husted, a supporter of SB1200, said he’s not entirely sure environmental groups deserve representation on the commission. He said those groups want to tell the Game and Fish Commission how to spend sportsmen’s money, which makes up about 72 percent of the Game & Fish Department’s budget.

“Without the commission, a liberal governor with two terms could in fact appoint all liberal people without any thought to the constituents that are paying the bill,” Husted said.

So far, though, only four of the five seats on the new recommendation board have been filled. The Governor’s Office said a one-word error in the bill makes it impossible to fill the fifth.

Environmentalist and conservationist groups said the bill ensures that three of those seats must go to people who have a stamp of approval from big hunting groups.

One of those three seats is still vacant, and will stay that way until the Legislature amends the law.

The empty seat is reserved for a member of a species-specific wildlife organization — “critter groups,” as some are fond of calling them — whose mission is to “to increase, sustain or otherwise conserve wild turkey, deer, elk, pronghorn (antelope), bighorn sheep, ducks, quail and fish.”

Drafters accidentally used the word “and” instead of “or” when listing the kinds of groups that could represent the seat on the board, and under the existing language, Brewer’s office said there is no group that meets the criteria.

“I don’t know why we didn’t catch that,” said lobbyist Suzanne Gilstrap, who helped craft SB1200. Gilstrap represents Sportsmen for Wildlife, one of the bill’s chief backers.

Pro-hunting lawmakers pushed for the recommendation board largely in response to Napolitano’s 2006 appointment of Jennifer Martin, a biologist with no hunting experience. Sportsmen organizations and their allies in the Legislature fought her appointment, arguing that she wasn’t qualified.

Gilstrap said Sportsmen for Wildlife has no intention of dominating the commission or excluding anyone. But Napolitano went out of her way to shut out the hunters and anglers, and the recommendation board ensures that a future governor can’t do the same.

The sportsmen weren’t consulted on Martin’s appointment or the nomination of Norman Freeman, another non-hunter, Gilstrap said. With one more vote on the commission, environmentalists would have been able to ban mountain lion hunting or do other things that would undermine the rights of hunters and fishers.

“The more of Earth (environmentalists) can restrict from human access, the happier they are,” said Sue Chilton, a former Game & Fish Commissioner who now serves on the recommendation board.

But Martin said her conflicts with the sportsmen are relatively minor, and believes there are deeper reasons for the creation of the recommendation board.

“My story seems to be interwoven with the story of this bill in some ways, but its effects are much farther reaching than that, and the interests of the people who wrote it are much farther reaching than simply disgruntlement over my appointment,” she said. “It’s about control of the Game and Fish Department and in whose hands it rests.”

Some believe the governor could fill the empty seat if she wanted to. Sandy Bahr, who heads up the Sierra Club’s Arizona chapter, said her organization would qualify under the flawed language because its mission includes the preservation of all wildlife in Arizona.

“If someone has knowledge of wildlife and meets all the other qualifications, why shouldn’t they be in the mix to serve? Especially if they have strong knowledge of wildlife,” Bahr said.

The Governor’s Office disagreed, saying the Sierra Club would not meet the criteria because its general conservationist mission is not specifically dedicated to the eight animals listed in the bill.

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