The Shooting Party

Hunting groups fail to derail a biologist's nomination to the Game and Fish Commission

The Great White Hunter twirled in his grave last month, when Jennifer Martin--a bona fide biologist--was named to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission.

That makes two people on the five-member board with actual knowledge about animals, beyond how they sizzle on a grill. (Commissioner Bob Hernbrode, a Tucsonan, also totes a biology background.) Indeed, Martin's appointment by Gov. Janet Napolitano spotlights a shift at the commission, away from its traditional, nearly universal domination by hunters.

In truth, although hunters and conservationists often lock horns--particularly on reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf and other predator issues--they have plenty of common interests. And some hunter-oriented commissioners, such as Flagstaff's Michael Golightly, have shown great propensity for thinking outside the sportsman's box.

Nonetheless, hunters' groups waged a nasty, ultimately losing battle against Martin's appointment. But even as their grip on the commission slips, they retain clout elsewhere: Senate President Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, refused to schedule a vote on Martin's nomination. That prompted Gov. Janet Napolitano to simply name Martin an interim commissioner for one year--and pledge to renominate her for a full term in the next legislative session.

If yet another good ol' boy belch was needed in this sorry spectacle, it came during confirmation hearings from Pete Cimellaro, executive director of the Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife. Cimellaro's group crusaded against the appointment of Martin, the commission's only female member. And he took pains to note her motherhood, fretting that such an important post might detract "from her young family."

Perhaps busy changing diapers, Cimellaro didn't return a later phone from the Tucson Weekly seeking comment.

Unfortunately, this tumult comes as the commission faces an enormous task in preserving species and habitat amidst Arizona's booming population. With five members, each appointed by the governor for five-year terms, the commission establishes regulations and rules for monitoring protection and the hunting of wildlife. It's a hefty job; this powerful board oversees the department's nearly $70 million annual budget and sets policies affecting wildlife far into the future.

Change on the board reflects a peek into that future, and Gov. Napolitano's apparent push towards more professionally driven wildlife policies. The governor nominated Martin in January, calling her a "perfect fit for the Arizona Game and Fish Commission."

Martin's qualifications include a biology degree from Northern Arizona University, experience as a Game and Fish Department employee, and twin stints at the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Conference and the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference.

Those should be ample qualifications, says Sandy Bahr, conservation outreach director for Arizona's Sierra Club. "But Jennifer isn't a hunter, and that seemed to be an issue for some groups who spoke out against her."

Regardless, Bahr believes the new commissioner can chart common ground. "From a wildlife perspective, she's certainly very interested in habitat protection. And loss of habitat is a key issue, whether you're a hunter or a bird watcher, or just like to know that wildlife exists here in Arizona."

But that common ground remains a work in progress. Although Martin earned a thumbs-up from the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Rural Affairs, Sen. Bennett says he opposed her nomination "on the grounds that I was contacted by several folks who ... expressed concern over whether or not her background and personal philosophy would move the commission forward."

In this case, that meant "forwarding the prospects of pro-hunting and pro-fishing," he says.

Given sportsmen's monetary contributions to Game and Fish, some say those concerns should pull plenty of heft. That includes Suzanne Gilstrap, a lobbyist for Cimellaro's group. Gilstrap is also the wife of outgoing Commissioner Hayes Gilstrap.

Her clients opposed Martin's appointment because "they felt she did not have the leadership qualifications we believe are necessary to be a sitting member of the commission," Gilstrap says. "Her resume is somewhat sketchy, and she was an employee of the department."

Game and Fish "has plenty of biologists there to make those kinds of decisions and recommendations," she says. "We don't feel it's appropriate to have a biologist on the board."

But as the dust settles, Jennifer Martin still disagrees. "I don't see my myself sitting there to second-guess department biologists," she says. On the other hand, "as a biologist, I'm well-prepared to understand information brought to me by the department. I speak that language, so I think I can make better decisions."

Some observers think hunting groups overreacted to Martin's nomination, particularly after she was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, a natural ally.

But Gilstrap thinks hunters earned their right to fight. "There are those who think there shouldn't be such a strong sportsmen's presence on the commission," she says. "Still, 95 percent--or perhaps even greater--of the dollars going to Game and Fish come from sportsmen. They have been the ones footing the bill forever."

Those funds range from fees for hunting licenses to boat permits. And several top-shelf hunter-activist groups, such as the Arizona Wildlife Federation, devote untold time and energy to conservation causes.

But that doesn't mean groups such as Arizona Sportsmen should strong-arm the commission, says Bahr. As their power wanes there, however, she predicts that Gilstrap, Cimellaro and others will turn to the Legislature. The Bennett stance is a case in point. "They've lost their power base on the commission," Bahr says. "So they want to move it to a place where they feel they have more influence."

Meanwhile, Commissioner Martin counters Gilstrap's funding claims. While the game management budget comes from hunters, "non-game management (budgets) come from Heritage Funds, matched with federal funds," she says. "So, for the most part, hunters aren't funding non-game management." (Heritage Funds are lottery proceeds earmarked for the Game and Fish Department.)

"Regardless," Martin says, "hunters do bring an incredible amount of resources and commitment and volunteer hours to on-the-ground restoration work." Hunters and conservationists both "want to see wildlife habitat intact, and want to see it enhanced."

And that's the bottom line, she says. "All along, I've had a dream of bringing together these diverse groups, getting them to lay aside the gloves, and work together to preserve habitat in Arizona--which we all agree is the biggest limiting factor for wildlife in this state."

As Martin assumes her embattled post, it seems that sportsmen can aim their sights towards cooperation--or continue a losing firefight.

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