Bad Habitat

Critics call Arizona Game and Fish antiquated and anti-predator

In an era when life splashes spontaneously across YouTube, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission is still grappling with dot-matrix.

Consider that the commission does not stockpile digital videos of its monthly meetings, where sweeping management decisions about Arizona's wildlife are pondered.

That means folks who can't ditch work to attend these Phoenix parleys—or watch them on live webcasts—must cool their heels until the minutes are released months later. Or they can submit a public records request for audio recordings. The digital files are dispatched in five-minute increments, making it impossible to know who's saying what.

Then again, perhaps this is limited access by design.

Which leads us to the policies of a commission that critics consider far more concerned with nourishing the hunting industry than protecting all wildlife—including endangered species that once roamed Arizona. This is particularly true, they say, when it comes to big predators such as the border jaguar and Mexican gray wolf.

That's not much of a reach. Most if not all current commissioners are longtime members of the NRA and influential hunting groups such as the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society and Safari Club International. The Safari Club, which operates the International Wildlife Museum in Tucson, has been linked to unethical hunting practices and efforts to weaken endangered species protections.

Nor is this lopsided margin surprising given that hunting groups three years ago successfully pushed for creation of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission Appointment Recommendation Board. The board screens potential commissioners before submitting three finalists for the governor's consideration. Among the board members is former AGF commissioner Sue Chilton, a Southern Arizona rancher notorious for her vitriolic opposition to reintroduction of large predators such as the Mexican gray wolf. It also includes Hays Gilstrap, another former commissioner and husband to Suzanne Gilstrap, who happens to be the lobbyist for a group called Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife Conservation.

Suzanne Gilstrap's group was not only the prime mover behind creation of the recommendation board, but also subsequently forwarded her spouse as its preferred appointee.

Critics contend that this cozy club skews Arizona's wildlife policies. Among those detractors is Daniel Patterson, a former state lawmaker and currently Southwest director with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. Patterson says his contacts within the Game and Fish Department describe an agency where morale is abysmal and shepherding the interests of hunting groups remains paramount.

That's hardly new; as a legislator, Patterson floated efforts to change the name of the Game and Fish Department to the Arizona Department of Wildlife. "The reason I did that was to remind them that their responsibility was for all wildlife," he says, "not just game and sports fish. Unfortunately, that message seems to be lost.

"A lot of hunters are pro-predator and want to see habitat protection. But the commission doesn't want to hear from those conservation voices. They want to hear from the more exploitative side," such as professional hunting guides and organizations.

For a case in point, Patterson and other conservationists note what they consider the commission's ongoing hostility toward Mexican gray wolf reintroduction.

Given that there are probably fewer than 50 Mexican gray wolves in the wild, folks were a tad surprised in 2010 when the commission threw its weight behind yanking the animals from federal endangered species protection.

Commissioners have also opposed establishing critical habitat for the border jaguar, despite at least five Southern Arizona sightings of the big cats in recent years.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initially sided with Arizona in opposing habitat designation—until it was ordered by a federal judge to change course.

Following a lawsuit by Defenders of Wildlife and the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, the late U.S. District Judge John Roll demanded that the agency develop a recovery plan and designate critical habitat.

Last fall, Fish and Wildlife finally proposed some 1,300 square miles in Arizona and New Mexico as habitat critical for jaguar recovery. That range includes the site of a Canadian company's proposed strip mine in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson.

Today, Game and Fish Commissioner Jack Husted remains among the most vocal critics of critical habitat. Known for his cowboy hats and trenchant commentary, Husted hails from Springerville in northeastern Arizona. Coincidentally, Springerville is perched next to the Mexican gray wolf recovery zone, and opposition to the project there runs deep.

Nonetheless, Husted takes issue with folks who call him anti-predator. "But what I am against is allowing the emotion involved in predators to make habitat management decisions we need to manage all wildlife," he says. "I don't want to let the wolf or the mountain lion or any other predator get any special treatment, just because he's got a lot of followers on Twitter."

That also applies to the jaguar, says Husted, who downplays the District Court's habitat decision. "A judge telling U.S. Fish and Wildlife to go do something doesn't change the Arizona Game and Fish position," he says.

Among comments submitted to U.S. Fish and Wildlife in October, the Arizona Game and Fish Department argued that critical habitat was not warranted "because habitat essential to the conservation of the jaguar as a species does not exist in either Arizona or New Mexico under any scientifically credible definition of that term."

Environmentalists call that ridiculous. "The jaguar evolved in the United States before it was the United States," says Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. "The jaguar was native to this continent before it expanded its range to the south. They were found from the Carolinas to California. The question is whether we are going to take any steps to protect a tiny bit of habitat on the edge of what was a huge swath of habitat."

Sergio Avila is a wildlife biologist with the conservation group Sky Island Alliance, which has photographed several jaguars just south of the border in Sonora, Mexico. "In terms of the jaguar it doesn't really matter if you're in Mexico or the United States," he says. "The point is, jaguars are here. We have records of jaguars going back over 100 years, and we have records of jaguars going back just a month ago. It's time to learn from our past mistakes and do something in terms of recovery of this species."

Still, Game and Fish commissioners certainly don't seem to consider past decisions as mistakes. And given the difficulty of accessing details about their earlier meetings, an observer might conclude that these gentlemen much prefer making decisions in an echo chamber of the like-minded.

"I've got to say that the sportsmen or whatever groups have been coming and sitting in front of us for years," Husted says. "I guess to spend departmental resources to make it easy for everybody, we could get pretty carried away."

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