Long-time watchers of Arizona's elite hunting clubs are never surprised by their various power grabs. Appalled, perhaps, but never surprised.
Still, the latest attempt to control our state's wildlife policies have left even wizened cynics aghast.
In the last legislative session, State Rep. Jerry Weiers, a Glendale Republican, pushed through a measure to create a screening board for potential nominees to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. The commission oversees the Game and Fish Department. (See "Kill Zone," Sept. 23.)
Weiers' bill was opposed by groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the Animal Defense League of Arizona. They said the board—likely to be stacked with big-game aficionados and without environmentalists—would haunt our state for years to come. It now appears they were right.
Consider that the Arizona Game and Fish Commission Appointment Recommendation Board has already resurrected the career of Sue Chilton. During her own 2000-2005 stint as a Game and Fish commissioner, the Southern Arizona anti-endangered-species crusader raised the bar for divisiveness and acrimony, according to environmentalists. Today, she's among four recommendation-board members who'll pick future commission nominees and forward them to Gov. Jan Brewer.
By Dec. 14, the governor had nominated one of their picks. Robert Mansell is a former superintendent of the Winslow Unified School District, and, according to the Maricopa County Republican Committee, quite the hunter. "This year, after more than 40 years of trying, Mansell was fortunate to get a desert bighorn sheep tag," crowed the group's online announcement.
If approved by the Arizona Senate, Mansell will replace Jennifer Martin, a single mom and brainy biologist who's been battered by the hook-and-gun crowd since first being nominated to the commission by former Gov. Janet Napolitano.
There was little shock that the recommendation board—created by a hunting lobby and made up mostly of hunters—recommended a hunter to replace Martin. Still, a few eyebrows were raised at just how cozy that recommendation board turned out to be.
Serving alongside Chilton is Leonard Stinson of the Arizona Flycasters Club, Phil Townsend of the Yuma Valley Rod and Gun Club, and another former AGF commissioner, Hays Gilstrap.
As it happens, Mr. Gilstrap is also the husband of Suzanne Gilstrap, the lobbyist for a group called Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife. Sportsmen was not only the prime mover for the creation of the recommendation board, but subsequently forwarded Hays Gilstrap's name as its preferred appointee.
Ms. Gilstrap has long been a Phoenix power-player, and integral to schemes aimed at advancing the interest of Arizona's trophy hunters. Those efforts range from a failed 2000 ballot measure requiring "super-majorities," or 67 percent voter approval, for wildlife initiatives to become law, to this year's failed Proposition 109, which would have amended the right to hunt into the state Constitution.
Her lobbying groups steadily sport misleading names—in 2000, it was Arizonans for Wildlife Conservation, in 2010, it was Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife—but their intent is always the same: advancing control by a small cabal of elite hunters over the state's wildlife policies.
Among those not appointed by Gov. Brewer to the recommendation board was Stephanie Nichols-Young, president of the Animal Defense League of Arizona. Though Nichols-Young wasn't exactly stunned at being passed over, she is galled by the chutzpah of Suzanne Gilstrap.
"When somebody has made I don't know how much money lobbying for a bill to create a new board, and then the five-year seat on that board—obviously the most powerful seat—goes to her husband, to me, that creates the appearance of impropriety," says Nichols-Young. "Even if it's not a direct conflict of interest, it doesn't look good."
Attempts to contact Suzanne Gilstrap for comment were not successful.
But Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman defends the board appointments. "I'm not going to comment on why the governor didn't select certain individuals," he says. "But I can tell you that she is certainly comfortable and confident with the professionalism and expertise of the individuals that she did select."
Senseman says he doesn't know whether Suzanne Gilstrap was privy to appointment discussions in the governor's office. "But you get this with all boards and commissions. It's always a balancing act between people who are willing to lend their expertise in a particular area."
He adds that critics who weren't appointed have "a sense of sour grapes about it."
Yuma businessman Phil Townsend, who chairs the board, also dismisses the Gilstrap connection. "I didn't see it," he says, "and I was never contacted by any of the hunting groups" affiliated with Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife.
According to Townsend, the board displayed its open-mindedness by including cable-TV executive Susan Bitter Smith among three commission recommendations forwarded to the governor. "She was not a hunter or fisherman," he says of Bitter Smith. "She's a shooter. But the question was asked whether she had a hunting or fishing license, and she said, 'No.'"
Townsend also defends the Mansell pick, calling him "a lifelong sportsmen who grew up in Arizona. His father and uncle ran fisheries and retired from the Arizona Game and Fish Department. He was superintendent of the Winslow School District. He has a background in community service and business as well as sportsman activities."
But to Stephanie Nichols-Young, the fact that this small, chummy recommendation board will continue controlling commission appointments is disastrous. Non-hunters "have always been shut out," she says, "but at least we could participate at some level. We had a teeny voice. But this is to make sure we have no voice.
"It also means that most people will have no prayer of ever getting on the Game and Fish Commission, no matter how strong their interest and knowledge of wildlife is," she says. "You may have had a (game) tag for 40 years, and be the most ardent outdoor person who fishes and hunts and everything else. But unless you get recommended from one of these (clubs) that are in with Suzanne Gilstrap, you can't get chosen."