Western wildlife commissions on the chopping block

  • A black bear in Colorado.

    Colorado Division of Wildlife

In Washington and New Mexico, state wildlife commissions could become a thing of the past. As part of their budget-trimming measures, both states' legislatures are considering bills that would do away with the commissions' power to set regulations and policy for managing fish and wildlife.

In theory, wildlife commissions, found in every Western state, allow citizens a voice in game and wildlife management decisions and help to insulate policy from partisan influence. "They were historically set up to put a damper on political swings between exploitation and conservation," says Bernard Shanks, past director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

With public input, the governor-appointed commissioners decide on hunting seasons and bag limits, and set regulations and policies for nongame wildlife. Many also have hiring and firing authority over the director of the state's wildlife division. In practice, though, critics say that commission seats sometimes go to campaign contributors. And commissions tend to emulate the political tone of the departments they oversee, often favoring fishing, hunting and agricultural interests over conservation and  "nonconsumptive" wildlife uses, such as photography.

Earlier this month, the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners passed controversial regulations for the state's first-ever black bear hunt, over the protests of conservationists who charge that the hunt lacks any scientific basis. The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission just decided to fund a study of state lands suitable for relocating bison from Yellowstone. Ranchers were furious, and the proposal divided both hunters and conservationists.

The bill introduced in Washington's Senate would remove rule-making authority from its fish and wildlife commission, restricting it to an advisory role. The bill also calls for a new Department of Conservation and Recreation that would include the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Recreation and Conservation Office and the Department of Natural Resources' law enforcement unit. "The commission form of government can work, but it's an expensive way to run government," says John Mankowski, Gov. Christine Gregoire's natural resource policy adviser. "It takes a lot of time and money to hold meetings all around the state and get input. The commission also makes fine-scale decisions about management that should be at the discretion of the director (of Fish and Wildlife)."

In New Mexico, a House bill would entirely eliminate the game commission, which has lost the trust of many state residents recently for sharply increasing black bear and cougar quotas. Policy decisions would be made by the Game and Fish Department instead, which would become part of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. "If we're going to hire professional biologists and fisheries people, let's let them do their job," says State Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-District 28, the bill's sponsor, "instead of having an overly politicized commission make those decisions."

It remains to be seen whether these two bills will move forward. In New Mexico, two nearly identical bills were recently tabled, but Hall's bill still awaits a hearing. The Washington bill has the governor's support and eight sponsors. If the legislation does pass, many wildlife management professionals and conservationists, and even some hunters, fear the change will prove harmful. "We're really concerned about the loss of a venue where sportsmen can address their concerns and meet with decision makers," says Joel Gay, communications director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. "We've had our disagreements with the Game Commission, but the overall process is sound."

Still, most agree that reform is needed. "Like any aspect of governance," says Chris Smith, former deputy director of Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, "wildlife commissions need to evolve with the times." In appointing commissioners, he says, governors must recognize that public interests in fish and wildlife management and conservation today are much broader than they were 30 years ago. And commissioners need to understand that they manage wildlife as a public resource and need to serve the interests of all their constituents.

If a state's residents don't feel they're adequately represented on their wildlife commission, what is the alternative? asks Martin Nie, associate professor of natural resource policy at the University of Montana. "You'll see more (management) decisions being made by ballot. And that's probably not a good thing," because the ballot process is far from ideal for making sound decisions on complex natural resource issues. A ballot initiative "leaves no room for collaborative problem-solving," adds Smith. "It's just bare-knuckles power politics."

cat koehn
cat koehn
Mar 08, 2011 08:20 PM
This story does a good job of explaining decades of wildlife mismanagement here by both state agencies and their 'Game' Commissions. I think this fellow had it exactly right with this comment: "If we're going to hire professional biologists and fisheries people, let's let them do their job," says State Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-District 28, the bill's sponsor, "instead of having an overly politicized commission make those decisions."

-I can not stress enough just HOW 'politicized hunting issues are in my state, Oregon. The state 'Game' department here has grossly mismanaged our fish, predators and ungulate populations to the point that they are tettering on the brink of population crashes. For 25 yrs. I have gone to bat for the Bears and Cougars of the Northwest.

Oregon's inept and money-grubbing 'Game' Dept. is the main cause of the fact that almost every Native Fish in Oregon is now on the Endangered Species List, and going down fast.

But the ODFW was not content when the majority of voters in Oregon 15 years ago voted TWICE to BAN HOUNDHUNTING OF COUGARS AND BEARS in Oregon.

And to give you a rough idea of the extent of the on-going mismanagement of ALL predators in our state, yesterday I had to drive to our state Capital and testify before the state legislature; and beg them not to pass the three new laws they are proposing to REINSTATE THE INHUMANE AND UNETHICAL PRACTICE OF HOUNDING COUGARS AND BEARS WITH PACKS OF RADIO-COLLARED DOGS.

-If this passes it would mean OPEN SEASON on Bears and Cougars; Oregon is already 'infamous' for it's Poachers, and the only Poachers that have a prayer of even seeing a cat are the ones with the DOGS ( -which is why we call them 'Slob-Hunters', cus it's the hounds that do the 'hunting' - the Trophyhunters just drive and do the Killing - nice, 'GAME'eh?)

And since all bears world-wide are listed on the Cites2 treaty as 'endangered'...these houndmen will go back to killing all our bears to sell their GAUL BLADDERS for fun and profit.

-I guess you can see I am pretty mad about our wildlife resources being sold off for the price of what it costs to buy a tag & kill a cougar here, $10.

Please demand biologically sustainable wildlife management from each of your own states, because the animals can not speak for themselves - so, please step up and demand REAL Conservation and protection of all of our invaluable Natural Resources. -Thanks, Cat Koehn -sorry this rant got so long!

So, because my favorite new saying is: 'The kinds of problems we face today, will NOT be solved by the minds that created them'... I would like to make a modest proposal:
-Whereas, the author here points up some positive things about eliminating these 'Game' Commissioners; I believe we should take it one step further, and save our states a lot of money by just ELIMINATING THESE 'GAME' GUYS ALTOGETHER.

Or, FIRE all the present administrators and move up some of the real fisheries and professional biologists that Rep. Jimmie Hall suggests, or only hire ones that promise not to kill of all our wildlife, just to make money for themselves. -They're in a big moneycrunch, because nobody buys Tags anymore, because there's nothing to hunt or fish but crappies and puny little deers with their hair dropping off from sickness around here...because of the gross mismanagement
Debby Welsh
Debby Welsh
Mar 23, 2011 01:42 PM
A good examle of the WDFW not representing all the people is the spring black bear hunt. They held public hearing in Spokane but not on the west side of the mountains even though they want to expand the hunt in areas here. Most people don't even know that it is not illegal in Washington to kill a mother bear with cubs never mind that there is a spring bear hunt and the WDFW favors expanding it. Also, in a 2008 survey on wildlife management, more than 85% of the respondents were male and hunters!!!