During the long, rancorous meeting in Safford, several commissioners reinforced the board's widely perceived bias against big predators--animals hankering after the same species their buddies kill for sport, such as deer and elk.
In the process, a contingent led by commissioners Dennis Manning and Bill Berlat tossed such highfalutin notions as ecological balance out the window. Instead, they relied on weary scare tactics and distorted number crunching, sparking what environmentalists consider a putsch to dump Arizona's role in the wolf program.
Since 1987, the AGF department has played a crucial role in bringing the Mexican gray back to its historical turf in eastern Arizona. Working with equivalent agencies in New Mexico, all under the leadership of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, department staffers have devised intricate reintroduction strategies, from finding appropriate wolf range to intensive on-the-ground monitoring of lobos initially released in 1998. Those efforts have been spearheaded by Terry Johnson, non-game branch chief for AFG.
Following a breezy, brilliant overview of the long-running project by Johnson and AGF Region 1 Supervisor Richard Remington, a smirking Manning pounced.
"If memory serves me correctly...at the end of January 1999, of the 13 wolves released, none were in the wild," Manning told Remington. "They were either recaptured, dead, or in acclimation pens. Is that correct?"
"There were no wolves roaming in the wild (at that time)," Remington replied, explaining that several of the adults were re-penned for mating, while others were being relocated, primarily due to hostility from ranchers.
It was a brief window in time, but Manning was determined to pry it wide open by questioning AFG statistics, wolf counts, program costs, and cooperation with the USFW. He also hammered on reintroduction spots, particularly Hannagan Meadow near the Arizona/New Mexico border.
"I have immediate concerns about that particular release site," he said, claiming that it was "right on" a major hiking path next to Highway 191. "The only reason that they were going to use that site, (FWS biologist) Wendy Brown stated, is people at Hannagan Meadow Lodge support the wolf program. That was the only reason she could supply to utilize that site. Immediately after those wolves were released, one of them was killed by an automobile on the highway. So evidently my concerns were valid."
Remington refuted the claim. "The Hannagan Meadow site (was picked) based upon certainly other issues than support of the wolf program by Hannagan Meadow Lodge," he said. He called the highway death of a wolf pup "unfortunate," adding that the release location spot was not immediately adjacent to the trail, and that, either way, "there have been no significant encounters between wolves and people."
He also emphasized that releasing the wolves in Arizona has had minimal impact on recreation, hunting, or on the levels of prey populations.
That volley was followed by a financial report from Johnson, listing Arizona's cost for participating in wolf reintroduction at about $10 million. During the presentation, Commissioner Berlat leaned grumpily over a calculator, tallying the next assault.
"I'm trying to fix in my mind the success of the program at this juncture," Berlat said. "So at the end of two years and four months, after we have been feeding these wolves, catching them, collaring them, mating them, removing them from the wild, putting them into pens, releasing them again--all the games we've been playing with these wolves for two years and four months, the net result is that out of 27 wolves we released, three survived. Plus 15 pups."
Again, Remington explained that several of the packs have been moved, with 11 wolves remaining in Arizona and the others now in New Mexico.
While Commissioner Mike Golightly tried to make a bizarre connection between the wolf program and economics ("How many jobs have been created due to wolf reintroduction?"), Berlat was again punching his calculator, before accusing Johnson and Remington of not publicizing the program's true cost.
"I'm shocked by these figures," Berlat said. "This is the first time I've realized that this has been the cost per wolfä. So far to date, depending upon how you calculate it, we've spent either $367,000 or $225,000 per wolf on the ground."
Johnson countered by saying those costs covered the program from its 1987 birth to projected completion in 2011, and stretch far beyond the wolves currently in Arizona. He also said the numbers have repeatedly been brought before the public.
That's when Manning jumped back in, peppering Johnson over more budget figures. Meanwhile, Commissioner Joe Carter stood to one side of the room, looking over Johnson's numbers on a screen. Then he grinned, and gave Manning a thumbs-up.
"Oh, I just liked his questions," Carter later explained to a reporter.
Following the grilling of Johnson and Remington, several audience members traipsed to the podium to deliver their views. The strapping crowd appeared evenly split between wolf detractors--mostly rural folks citing threats to their lifestyles--and wolf supporters, who noted that the government probably spent far more killing coyotes and subsidizing cattle grazing than it ever will on wolf reintroduction.
Gussied-up in cowboy duds, Willcox Sen. Gus Arzberger vowed to "find out what pressure (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife is putting on the (AGF) to participate" in the wolf program. "And I have the ability to do it," Arzberger declared.
Throughout the meeting, it became obvious that most commissioners are both devising a strategy to pull out of the program, and gauging the potential political fall-out such a move would incur. Given their line of questioning--along with a series of shared smiles and nods--Manning, Berlat and Carter appeared to be working as a policy tag-team.
On the other hand, Golightly is emerging as a moderately progressive member of the body. He was noticeably operating outside the Manning/Carter /Berlat clique on Friday, several times sitting apart from the other commissioners, and avoiding their knowing winks.
Chairman Hays Gilstrap also remained above the fray, given his apparent preference for behind-the-scenes arm-twisting. Dubbed "the Silver Fox" by activist critics, the white-haired commissioner is well known for his back-room efforts on behalf of the wildlife conservation management bill. Passed by the legislature in March, and slated for the November ballot, it would require a nearly impossible two-thirds voter approval for any wildlife initiative to become law.
His wife, Suzanne Gilstrap, lobbied for the measure on behalf of a group disingenuously called Arizonans for Wildlife Conservation. The AWC paid her firm, Gilstrap and Thomas, $17,500 between November 24, 1998 and December 31, 1999.
Comprised largely of hunters, and led by statehouse insiders Brad Kerby and Pete Cimellaro, the group held a meeting last May in the home of former AGF Commissioner Art Porter. Both Hays Gilstrap and his wife attended the meeting, along with at least one other AGF commissioner.
There are also allegations from a source close to hunting groups (who requested anonymity) that Gilstrap had his wife prod Gov. Jane Dee Hull's Regulatory Review Council into overturning a commission decision banning high-stakes predator hunting contests. Hays Gilstrap originally voted against the ban, then expressed his "shock and disappointment" to a reporter when the GRRC booted the measure.
Both Gilstraps strongly deny trying to influence the council's decision.
As for reasons behind the AGF Commission's steady anti-predator stance, one ideological clue is obvious: a majority of members--Golightly, Berlat and Gilstrap--also belong to Safari Club International, a group repeatedly linked to illegal hunting of endangered species.
But tracing the trail further leads directly to the governor's office. Hull appointed all the current commissioners except Manning, a holdover from the Symington administration.
According to the hunting source, Hull's AGF appointments are in turn handpicked by Joe "Doc" Lane, a close advisor and head of the Arizona Cattle Growers Association, a ranching lobby. Ironically, the source also claims that Lane was asked to investigate conflict-of-interest claims arising from Hays Gilstrap's commission post, and Suzanne Gilstrap's lobbying efforts.
Hull spokeswoman Francie Noyes denies that Lane handled the investigation. Instead, she says Hull staffer Lisa Daniel-Flores investigated the charge, and "found no violation of the law."
Noyes calls Lane "a close, longtime friend of the Governor." But claiming that he holds inordinate influence over Hull's wildlife policies "is a simplistic way to look at the Governor's job," she says.
Still, despite their preponderance of power, at least one of Hull's AFG commissioners has run into trouble. Bill Berlat was first appointed to fill a commission vacancy, then reappointed last year. A blustering lawyer given to vulgar outbursts, he earned plenty of enemies in the legislature by sending nasty e-mails to at least one opponent of the wildlife conservation bill, and racist and sexist online jokes to several AFG staffers. As a result, his reappointment has deliberately never been confirmed by a Senate vote, which "basically makes him toast," according to one Senate insider. Berlat's current term expires in January.
Berlat refused to comment on his lame-duck status at the May 19 meeting, and Noyes says the governor has no plans to withdraw the commissioner's sullied reappointment. Meanwhile, environmentalists are busy corralling applicants to fill Berlat's pending vacancy. Among the applications already filed is that of the UA's Dr. Paul Krausman.
The biologist's chances may linger between nil and non-existent, however, since he boasts no obvious disdain for wolves, and no direct ties to Joe Lane, Safari Club International, or Arizona's absurdly powerful ranching cabal. And then there's his annoying scientific background.
Heck, he might even believe in evolution.