Kill Zone

Hunters use the ballot to take aim at Arizona wildlife management

Folks were astonished last spring when Arizona's hunting elite pushed for the power to stack the Arizona Game and Fish Commission with their hand-picked cronies.

They succeeded: On April 7, Gov. Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1200, creating an "appointment recommendation board" heavy with trophy hunters, which in turn will handpick all potential commission nominees.

Now they're back.

This time around, Rep. Jerry Weiers, the Glendale Republican behind SB 1200, is asking Arizonans to cede most of their ability to affect state wildlife policies by making it nearly impossible to ban hunting in Arizona—assuming, of course, that anyone ever wanted to in the first place.

To critics, this is just another naked power grab by the usual suspects.

"The way it's written, it takes the power away from the people and the (Fish and Wildlife) agency and gives it to the Legislature," says Rep. Nancy Young Wright, an Oro Valley Democrat. "And that's a bad idea—especially with this Legislature."

Slated for the November ballot, Proposition 109 would institute hunting as a constitutional right in Arizona. Changing that right in the future would thus require another amendment to the Constitution—and yet another ballot proposition.

This all might sound complicated. But to Rep. Weiers, the goal is simply to ensure that "emotional" voters raised on Disney movies don't try to outlaw his pastime.

And what a pastime it is: Weiers boasts membership in a slew of hunting clubs, from the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society and the Arizona Elk Society to the Arizona Antelope Foundation.

"Animals should be managed through biology and science, not by emotion," he says. "My opponents are trying to make people believe that this is a power-grab by the Legislature. Nothing could be further from the truth."

With the exception of banning medieval leg-hold traps in 1992, Arizonans haven't done much to hamper hunters. But Weiers points to anti-hunting efforts in other states as examples of what can happen here. "You don't wait and start looking for a life preserver after you get on the boat," he says.

If Weiers and other big-game hunters needed help in playing the fear card, they got it on Feb. 24, when he chaired a meeting of the House Committee on Military Affairs and Public Safety. The meeting included Suzanne Gilstrap, wife of former Arizona Game and Fish Commissioner Hays Gilstrap. According to the minutes, Ms. Gilstrap—a lobbyist for the influential pro-hunting group Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife—heaped praise on Proposition 109 and its backers. Gilstrap also noted that "Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife is most appreciative of the NRA's efforts in bringing this bill forward."

That would be the National Rifle Association, purportedly one of the prime movers behind Proposition 109 and similar measures across the country. Also in those minutes, Darren LaSorte, the NRA's manager of hunting policy, told the committee that "there are a number of powerful anti-hunting groups who want to ban hunting. ... This legislation provides meaningful protections against attacks that the NRA knows will occur."

Neither LaSorte nor other NRA representatives returned phone calls from the Tucson Weekly seeking comment.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission—which so far is still responsible for setting wildlife policy—called an emergency meeting on Feb. 23, when four of the five commissioners voted to support Proposition 109. The only dissension came from Chairwoman Jennifer Martin, who's been in trophy hunters' crosshairs since 2006, when they tried to sink her nomination by former Gov. Janet Napolitano.

Martin declines to comment on her opposition to the measure. But she says some commissioners worried that Proposition 109 would weaken their control over wildlife policy. "Some of the issues the commission discussed were whether or not the language (in Proposition 109) provided adequate acknowledgement of the commission's authority. ... The commission ultimately decided that there was more to be gained than to be lost in the measure—that even if there were concerns about the commission's authority, there was such significant protection for hunting as a management tool being put in place."

Among those concerns were whether someone might have a legal footing to challenge routine hunting seasons or limits set by the commission—as an infringement on their hunting rights. "That's a legal question that's not going to be answered now," Martin says. "It's going to be answered in the future if there's any challenge to it."

But for Nancy Young Wright, it's a question of when, rather than if. Proposition 109 "would put hunting and fishing and the harvesting of wildlife into the Constitution, along with the freedom of religion," she says. "It makes it a fundamental right, and that's going to be hard to regulate. Somebody might say that hunting out of season is my fundamental right. ... I can see that heading right for court."

Which raises the question: Why would the Game and Fish Commission support opening such a potential Pandora's box?

One answer could be found in the thick fraternal ties between Rep. Weiers and various commission members. Like Rep. Weiers, most commissioners boast membership in trophy-hunting organizations. According to the Game and Fish website, most also belong to the NRA—including John Harris, the commissioner representing our region, who touts his lifetime NRA membership.

Harris didn't return numerous calls from the Tucson Weekly.

Another possible answer comes from Sandy Bahr, who tracks the Legislature for the Sierra Club. She says the threat of a hunting ban was simply contrived by the NRA to rally its pro-gun, pro-hunting troops. "The NRA is pushing this as kind of an organizing tool, I think, more than anything else—because it's obviously not needed, and they know that."

According to Bahr, LaSorte even said as much in his testimony before Rep. Weiers' committee. But in the end, perception apparently trumps reality—especially when Arizona's wildlife policies are on the table.

"I think the Legislature likes this, because it gives them more power," says Bahr. "Or least they hope it does. The language in the measure says the Legislature has the 'exclusive authority' over wildlife. And 'exclusive authority' is very popular with them. But, hopefully, voters will see that it's also a bad idea."

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