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Power struggle

Western states seek to reconfigure wildlife commissions

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State fish and game commissions were created to buffer wildlife management from politics, but as any Westerner can tell you, they don't always succeed. Some members of the public exert far more influence than others when it comes to making decisions about the wild animals all Americans own. Now, in some states, wildlife commissions have been targeted for a radical reconfiguration.

To save money, Washington and New Mexico are considering bills that merge their wildlife divisions into other natural resource departments—and do away with their commissions' power to set regulations and policy for managing fish and wildlife. This sounds like an undemocratic move since in theory, wildlife commissions were created to allow citizens a voice. Historically, they were also 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.

The way it works now, the governor-appointed commissioners in every Western state involve the public before they decide on hunting seasons and bag limits and set regulations and policies for non-game wildlife. Many commissions also hire and fire the director of the state's wildlife division. But critics charge that sometimes commission posts go to reward campaign contributors. Wildlife commissions also tend to emulate the political tone of the departments they oversee, with many favoring fishing, hunting and agricultural interests over conservation and "non-consumptive" wildlife uses, such as photography.

Earlier this month, for example, 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. In Montana, the state's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission just decided to fund a study of state lands that might be suitable for relocating bison from Yellowstone. Ranchers were furious, fearing that brucellosis-infected bison could spread disease to their cattle. Many advocates and hunters cheered the return of the bison, while critics worried about the cost of fencing and the possible impact to public safety.

In Washington, a Senate bill would remove rule-making authority from the fish and wildlife commission, restricting it to an advisory role. "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 of the state's citizens; most recently, it came under fire for sharply increasing black bear and cougar quotas. Policy decisions would be made by the Game and Fish Department, which would become part of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

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"If we're going to hire professional biologists and fisheries people, let's let them do their job," says State Rep. Jimmie Hall, the bill's sponsor. Now, he adds, "an overly politicized commission makes those decisions." But if Hall's bill passes in New Mexico, many wildlife management professionals, members of environmental groups 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."

Reform, though, may be in the air: "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.

Is there a feasible alternative to today's wildlife commissions? Martin Nie, associate professor of natural resource policy at the University of Montana, says one possibility is using the ballot box to make management decisions about bear hunts and other matters, though he adds that this is "probably not a good thing."

That may be putting it mildly: The ballot process may seem the essence of democratic decision-making, but it's far from ideal for making sound decisions on complex issues concerning wildlife. "It leaves no room for collaborative problem-solving," says Smith. "It's just bare-knuckles power politics." Somehow, that doesn't sound much different from what we already have.

Jodi Peterson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado, where she is the magazine's managing editor.

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