Indecent Proposal

Cud-happy commissioners are doing their best to make the Game and Fish Department serve ranchers first.

The good, the bad and the non-specific caught flack last month, when the Arizona Game and Fish Department unveiled its massive Wildlife 2006 document.

Mandated by the state legislature, and compiled over several months by Terry Johnson, conservation-minded chief of the AGF's non-game branch, the humongous tome sets department policy for the next five years.

As with most creations trying to be all things to many people, it didn't leave anyone overjoyed. It even raised a few ghosts--including failed Commissioner Bill Berlat, who was booted from the board last year after the Senate refused to confirm his appointment by Gov. Jane Hull. Today, Berlat can only offer the sad yappings of a sidelined ankle-biter. But he does so with a brave snarl: In a letter to former comrades prior to their January 19 meeting, he browbeat them for parts of Wildlife 2006 he felt capitulated to "environmental and animal rights nuts."

"I thought the commission had huevos," the ex-official wrote.

If Berlat is relegated to the peanut gallery, his replacement, new Hull appointee and Arivaca cowgal Sue Chilton, is jubilantly center-stage--and none too shy about exploiting her exalted post. Chilton is sodden with conflict-of-interest drizzle related to her ranching livelihood. This concern gained gravity when her notes on a draft version of Wildlife 2006 were begrudgingly made public, after a lawsuit against the department prompted their release.

Chilton wasted nary a double-space, inserting everywhere possible references to ranchers' rights, and downplaying whenever possible the notion of cooperation with federal agencies (see "Enthralled with Enlibra," February 1).

Some pages, especially those relating directly to wildlife management, were outright obliterated by the cud-happy commissioner. For example, under her deft touch, "The Department must work to ensure that habitat is protected to meet wildlife program objectives" became "The Department must work to ensure that habitat is protected and managed to advance the mission of the Department to conserve wildlife for the benefit of the people and economy of Arizona."

Much of Chilton's self-serving largesse was likewise obliterated from the final draft.

Given all this scheming and political pressure, it's a wonder Johnson ever completed Wildlife 2006 at all. A lumbering 93 pages, the work is divided into categories including goals such as maintenance of game populations to "conservation projects for at least 25 of the 113 species listed as Wildlife of Special Concern in Arizona." The document likewise includes guidelines for measuring progress on these programs.

Several comments, gathered in months of public review, contend that the statement is weighted toward game animals and commercial concerns. "Wildlife 2006 is limited in its focus with priority given to the availability of wildlife as a consumable commodity available for hunting and fishing," wrote one observer. "The report is negligent in not focusing on the Department's role as a principal in conservation of wildlife resources."

"I find the plan a good generalization," said another, "but I want to see specifics on implementation, such as funding dollars, now and future."

Others criticized Wildlife 2006 for not mentioning the embattled Mexican gray wolf. Nor was that an oversight, says Johnson, who's known as a strong advocate of lobo reintroduction. "The Mexican wolf was not mentioned once, and my response is, 'Why should it be?' The language already in there says we will do reintroduction to support endangered species."

The bottom line: "I need to have a document the commission can support," he says. "And I have to have a document the department can make work. I can look at this plan right now and tell anybody--with a straight face--that I can do everything the environmentalists want me to do in areas of non-game and endangered species. I can deliver those programs.

"But someone else can read that document, see the same text, and they can see this as a clear message that they're not going to be allowed to do a certain thing."

Meaning commercial hunters, ranchers and off-road-vehicle yahoos.

"Some people are looking for prescriptions, things that will absolutely constrain someone whom they want constrained," Johnson continues, "or they want something that will absolutely set free someone they want to have set free.

"I make the question clear to commissioners: Do they defer to the biology, or do they override the biology? That's their prerogative, ultimately."

Unfortunately, like Chilton, most commissioners were hand-picked by Joe Lane, a close advisor to Gov. Hull, and a notorious ranching sycophant. In turn, Lane's commission lapdogs have shown little difficulty making calls when cumbersome ol' science gets in the way of commercial hunting or federally subsidized cattle-ranching.

One exception to watch: Mike Golightly of Flagstaff, who seems to be carving a niche for himself as an independent-minded commissioner willing to stand up to the omnipotent Arizona Cattle Growers Association.

And of course Joe Lane's brother, C.B. "Doc" Lane, is chief lobbyist for the Cattle Association.

Don't that just beat all.

For copies of Wildlife 2006, or to register your comments, call 602-789-3290.
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