Canned Hunt

Special interests seek to stack the Arizona Game and Fish Commission

Every few years, as if on cue, a Phoenix-based hunting cabal launches a ham-fisted power grab.

Back in 2000, under the name Arizonans for Wildlife Conservation, the group unsuccessfully pushed a ballot measure aimed at squashing the public's ability to enact hunting restrictions. The goal? To block a replay of 1994, when a voters' initiative outlawed the medieval practice of catching animals in leg-hold traps.

In 2006, many of the same players—this time under the name Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife—outdid themselves trying to block the appointment of Jennifer Martin to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. Why? For one thing, Martin wasn't a hunter. On top of that, she's a bona fide biologist. That's a huge rarity on the rod-and-gun-dominated commission, and raises the threat that actual science might influence wildlife policy.

Now this advocacy group, composed of big-game hunters and professional guides, is trying to stack the commission with its hand-picked candidates. The goal? To keep moderate eggheads like Martin from gaining more of a foothold. After all, it's hard to be a good ol' boy when you're a mom with a college degree.

Unlike the 2000 ballot measure and the assault on Martin's appointment, this latest skullduggery just may succeed. With help from the right-wingers running the Legislature, the hunters are pushing a remarkably noxious bill—known as HB 2189 and SB 1200—through the Arizona Senate and House of Representatives. At the time of this writing, it seems destined for the desk of Gov. Jan Brewer. Brewer has so far been mum on the measure, and her aides have declined to comment.

If you're getting the impression that these sportsmen are more about shooting wildlife than conserving it, you'd be right. But their perspective holds huge sway among Phoenix powerbrokers. They're quite skilled at working inside channels, and even get their own folks on the commission from time to time.

Consider Hays Gilstrap, an insurance executive seated on the body in the late 1990s by then-Gov. Jane Hull. While serving as its chairman in 1999, the white haired commissioner—dubbed the "Silver Fox" by activist critics—was well known for his backroom efforts on behalf of the failed ballot proposition in 2000. Meanwhile, his wife, Suzanne Gilstrap, lobbied for the measure on behalf of Arizonans for Wildlife Conservation. That work earned her consulting firm nearly $18,000.

It's unclear how much Mrs. Gilstrap has earned lobbying for this latest measure; she didn't return several phone calls or an e-mail seeking comment.

If enacted, the bill would create a board to screen candidates for the AGF commission. Those vetted candidates would then be forwarded to the governor. But here's the rub: According to the legislation, this five-member board would include at least three members who seem suspiciously like folks belonging to Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife.

For instance, the House version of the bill mandates that one member would come from an established nonprofit organization "whose membership consists of a significant cross-section of wildlife conservation and sportsmen organizations from throughout the state, that does not have an affiliation or charter with a national wildlife conservation or sportsman's organization and that has been in existence for at least five years."

Another provision, more to the point, requires that one more appointee would come from an organization whose mission is to "increase, sustain or otherwise conserve" specified animals.

Could that possibly include hunting clubs such as the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, the Arizona Antelope Foundation, or Arizona Predator Callers—all of which belong to Arizona Sportsmen?

You bet, says Randy Serraglio, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity (and a Weekly contributor). The Game and Fish Department is already dominated by hunters, he says, and the bill pushed by Arizona Sportsmen "would just lock that in, from the Legislature's perspective. That's exactly what we're afraid of. It suits their agenda. They're not interested in protecting wildlife beyond making hunters happy. That's pretty clear."

These days, Jennifer Martin chairs the Game and Fish Commission. She has her own take on the bill forwarded by the same folks who tried to sink her nomination. "The intent behind that measure is to create a commission composed entirely of people who come from similar backgrounds, and have similar views and intentions for the direction of the (Game and Fish) Department," she says. "And that agenda would be the Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife agenda, because they are the impetus behind it.

"If you look at the (proposed) board and the seats that are described, the first three seats of that five-person board are essentially Sportsmen for Wildlife seats."

Arizona Sportsmen has argued that it deserves a leading role, since its members purchase a large share of hunting permits. Those fees help support the Game and Fish Department. But Martin calls that a smokescreen. "They'll tell you that sportsmen's dollars make up 60 percent of the Game and Fish budget; therefore, they should have 60 percent representation on this board that selects commissioners," she says.

"The problem is, if you give yourself three out of five votes on a voting body, you're not giving yourself 60 percent representation. You're giving yourself complete control. And the department is responsible for managing all the wildlife in the state, in the public trust for 6 1/2 million Arizonans, not for the relatively small number of Arizonans who are in these clubs.

"It's debatable," she says, "whether these clubs even represent the majority of hunters and anglers."

But according to Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter, there's no room for debate. She says Suzanne Gilstrap pegged Arizona Sportsmen membership at around 6,000. "But there are nearly 400,000 people with hunting and fishing licenses in Arizona," Bahr says. "I'm actually one of them, and they don't represent me. My husband has a fishing license, and they don't represent him.

"Arizona's wildlife is not private property," she says. "It does not just belong to a few people. It's held in trust for the public. It belongs to the public and to future generations."