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."

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