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Editorials: Not your Father’s Game and Fish

Arizona Republic - October 13, 2015

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Following are three Editorials that were published in the Arizona Republic that discuss wildlife conservation in Arizona and the roles that the Game and Fish Department, politics, public opinion,  and finances play in the recovery of Mexican wolves.
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Our View: Controversy has followed Game and Fish's efforts to reintroduce wolves. There's an important lesson here.

A resort lake humming with city-weary boaters and a lonely stretch of Northern ranchland share a role in preserving Arizona’s wildlife heritage.

Biologists from the Arizona Game and Fish Department are there. They are also involved in what may be the most controversial species recovery in the state: the endangered Mexican gray wolf.

The agency’s reach, the complexity of the tasks it handles and the depth of the emotions over some of its actions show why more Arizonans should be paying attention and demanding a bigger say in how Game and Fish operates.

The Mexican wolf maelstrom

For example, Game and Fish takes shots from all sides as department biologists work on multi-agency, multi-state efforts to reintroduce Mexican wolves on federal land along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

Environmental groups have little good to say about how things have been handled. They criticize the agency for favoring ranchers and say the commission has tried to undermine recovery.

On the other side, ranchers and hunters want attention for their concerns about wolves dining on livestock or game animals.

Despite criticism and setbacks, the recovery effort is progressing. Wolf numbers have risen.

Has the population grown fast enough? Is this recovery moving too fast?

Does Game and Fish deserve credit? Or blame?

The politics behind those questions resulted in numerous lawsuits, including one filed this summer by Game and Fish alleging that the failure of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to update a recovery plan for the wolves has added to Arizona’s wildlife management costs and interfered with the state’s “sovereign authority.”

Environmental groups, who have their own lawsuits, say Game and Fish has thwarted efforts to complete a recovery plan for the wolves.

Why diverse voices matter

The importance of Arizona’s wildlife diversity reaches far beyond these opposing special interest groups, yet the discussions about the state's wildlife rarely involve a broad cross-section of Arizonans.

They should.

In addition to the political complexities, the challenges of protecting or reintroducing species play out in scenarios as diverse as Lake Pleasant, where biologists monitor Bald eagle nests, and Arizona’s north-country Babbitt Ranches, where an effort to reintroduce endangered black-footed ferrets is ongoing.

Whether the species is cute, majestic or controversial, the management of these creatures is linked to the ecological health of a state that still has a remarkable potential to conserve its natural resources.

Game and Fish is doing a good job on a great many fronts. But it could do better if more Arizonans recognized that they have a stake in what this agency does.

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Our View: Arizona Game and Fish has one of the nation's best wildlife programs. Yet conservationists have no voice on an oversight commission.

Bald eagles, Sonoran pronghorn and California condors in Arizona depend on a surprising champion: The Arizona Game and Fish Department. The agency is not just for hunters anymore. It can’t be.

In a rapidly urbanizing state, it will take creativity, cooperation and expertise to assure wildlife populations remain healthy. The Game and Fish Department can deliver that, but it requires involving a broader constituency than the usual hook and bullet boys.

The agency's reach stretches from obscure frogs in remote creeks to javelinas wandering through your front yard to the elk that hunters covet.

Yet most people see this state wildlife agency in the traditional context of plaid-clad game managers who issue hunting and fishing licenses. That’s an important job, but it's not the whole job.

A successful conservation division

The department’s non-game branch is nationally recognized as one of the strongest in the country. It's accomplishments are impressive.

-- If you see a bald eagle soaring over Lake Pleasant, you can thank biologists at Game and Fish. They’ve been monitoring the birds for years, closing off recreation areas in nesting season so the parents can raise their chicks, and rappelling down cliffs to band eaglets so the population can be tracked.

-- If you see a California condor at the Grand Canyon, thank Game and Fish. The agency encourages hunters in condor country to voluntarily switch to non-lead bullets to protect these iconic scavengers from lead poisoning.

-- If you care about saving endangered species, thank Game and Fish. Working with federal agencies, it increased the number of Sonoran pronghorn to 235 in the wild, up from a mere two dozen in 2002. Black-footed ferrets and the Chiricahua leopard frog also benefit from the agency’s efforts.

Arizona is home to more than 800 native species. Only about three dozen of them are threatened or endangered. Fewer than 100 species are hunted or fished.

Most Arizonans are not hunters. But nearly every Arizonan surveyed by Colorado College in 2015 said protecting and conserving wildlife is important. Three in four said it is very important.

A misguided law governing the agency

Yet the voices of non-hunters are being muted just as the challenges of wildlife management are becoming more complex.

The Arizona Game and Fish Commission sets policy for the Game and Fish Department. The commission was originally designed to be insulated from politics. Five years ago, the Legislature gave hunters a monopoly on decision making.

It was unwise and intentional.

The change was made for the sake of “real hunters” who “put money into Game and Fish,” as Republican Sen. John Nelson said in pushing the change in the spring of 2010.

Before this law passed, the governor made appointments directly to the commission. Hunters long had a strong voice, but they were not always the only voice.

Nelson’s bill took away the governor’s discretion by establishing the Arizona Game and Fish Commission Appointment Recommendation Board to screen applicants and create a list from which the governor must select commissioners. The membership of the recommendation board is defined in statute so hunters have an advantage.

A need for more diverse voices

Former Game and Fish Commissioner Tom Woods has been involved in wildlife issues for more than 60 years. He testified against creation of the board at the Legislature, and recently said the change has had a “terrible impact,” resulting in a five-member commission made up of five hunters.

Woods, a hunter, says the commission should include advocates for non-game species management.

Commission Chair Kurt Davis, described as an “avid hunter and angler,” said by e-mail that the system works well. “I was asked interesting, difficult and thoughtful questions during my selection process,” he said.

That’s not the point. The commission that sets policy for the state’s wildlife agency should not be dominated by one interest group. The law that assured this would happen was a mistake. It should be repealed.

The Game and Fish Department has top quality biologists, decades of data and a deep understanding of Arizona's wildlife. It is uniquely positioned to do the day-to-day job of keeping Arizona's wildlife healthy and making recommendations that can help preserve the special places wildlife needs as Arizona's population grows.

An expanded role for the agency makes sense -- but only if the commission that sets policy for Game and Fish reflects the broad diversity of Arizonans who care about wildlife.

A modern wildlife agency needs to respond to voices and viewpoints that reflect the mission to conserve, enhance and restore the state's wildlife.

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Our View: Game and Fish gets no general fund money, and most of its non-game work comes from the shaky Heritage Fund.

In Arizona, neither the State Parks nor Game and Fish departments get any state general fund money.
In 1990, the need to fund outdoor recreation was recognized by voters who passed the Heritage Fund. It took $20 million in lottery revenues and directed half to State Parks and half to Game and Fish.

This broadened the funding base for outdoor recreation.

During the recession, lawmakers eliminated Heritage funding for the parks.

Heritage Fund money remains the next largest single source of funding for Game and Fish after hunting and fishing, making up about 11 percent of the total budget. It supports much of the agency’s non-game work.

But the money is a fixed amount and lawmakers could decide to raid it.

Supporters of the Heritage Fund are discussing another ballot measure to restore funding for State Parks, and protect the funding for both Parks and Game and Fish departments.

It's a good idea to lock in that money for the purpose voters intended.

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Speak Up for Mexican Wolves

Although New Mexico and Arizona polling shows that the vast majority of voters in both states support the Mexican wolf reintroduction, state politics continue to hamper the program.

The wild population of Mexican wolves is at tremendous risk due to its small size and genetics. Many more wolves should be released this year from the hundreds in captive breeding programs, but Arizona Game and Fish is standing in the way.

Recently, US Fish and Wildlife Service made a responsible decision not to let the New Mexico Game Commission stand in the way of Mexican wolf recovery, but to move forward with new wolf releases, desperately needed to improve the wild wolves’ genetic health. Arizona Game and Fish should likewise not be allowed to obstruct the recovery of these highly endangered animals.

In a 2014 recent economic analysis of sources of state wildlife funding, Wildlife Conservation Management Funding in the U.S., the authors contend that, contrary to popular belief, approximately 95% of federal, 88% of non-profit, and 94% of total funding for wildlife conservation and management come from the non-hunting public.

Something is truly wrong with Arizona’s commission appointment system. Commissioners should be selected on the basis of their experience and ability to make science based decisions that are good for all wildlife, especially endangered species.

A system that does not result in qualified biologists on the Game and Fish Commission is a system that is not working in the best interests of the state’s wildlife and people.

Arizona needs a wildlife agency that honors and fulfills its public trust obligations by representing the best interests of all of Arizona’s wildlife, including keystone carnivores like wolves.

As the editorials pointed out, while many of the the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s biologists are doing important work for many species, the Commission is heavily biased against non-game species, especially important carnivores like wolves. This needs to change.

Recently, AZ Game and Fish bullied the US Fish and Wildlife Service into capping the number of endangered Mexican gray wolves allowed to live in the wild at 325, with no basis in science or recovery planning, to trap any lobos who travel to key habitats north of I-40, and to make it easier to kill and remove these highly endangered wolves. Now it has blocked the release of genetically valuable adult wolves from the captive population, in direct opposition to the recommendations of scientific experts about what the wolves need to recover.

During the period from 2003 – 2009, when the Adaptive Management Oversight Committee (AMOC) led by Arizona Game and Fish managed the wolf reintroduction project, the wild population declined from 55 to only 42 wolves and 2 breeding pairs.

State politics are impeding scientific integrity. Even as AZ Game and Fish biologists who work on the Mexican wolf Interagency Field Team have been working hard to make the reintroduction program a success, the politically appointed members of the AZ Game and Fish Commission have repeatedly worked against the recovery of endangered Mexican gray wolves and dismissed the recommendations of nationally recognized scientific experts.

Peer reviewed science by top wolf experts says that Mexican wolves need four things to recover:
1) they need two new populations north of Interstate 40 and the ability to travel between the three populations;
2) they need genetic rescue, which requires expedited releases from the captive population;
3) human caused mortality must decrease;
4) and there must be an absolute minimum of 750 wolves in the wild. 

With no basis in science, AZ Game and Fish wants to keep wolves south of I-40, to block new releases, to loosen restrictions on killing and trapping wolves, and to allow no more than 325 wolves to live in the wild.

Please take a stand for Mexican wolf recovery
with a letter to the editor!

The letters to the editor page is one of the most widely read, influential parts of the newspaper. One letter from you can reach thousands of people and will also likely be read by decision-makers. Tips and talking points for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience.

General talking points about the importance of wolves.

- Wolves are an essential part of the balance of nature.  They keep elk and deer herds healthy by ensuring the most fit animals survive.

- Mexican gray wolves are beautiful, intelligent, family oriented animals who were persecuted and nearly exterminated by the government. Our state and federal government should do everything in its power to ensure these native animals do not go extinct in the wild again.

- Wolves are responsible for less than 1% of livestock losses. Most livestock losses are due to disease, accidents, and bad weather. The livestock industry has a responsibility to share public lands with wolves and other wildlife by using coexistence methods to avoid conflicts between livestock and wolves.

- Wolves are part of God’s creation. We have a responsibility to take care of them.

Make sure you:

- Thank the paper for publishing the editorials.

- Submit your letter as soon as possible. The chance of your letter being published declines after a day or two since the article was published.

- Do not repeat any negative messages, such as “so and so says that wolves kill too many cows, but…”  Remember that those reading your letter will not be looking at the article it responds to, so this is an opportunity to get out positive messages about wolf recovery rather than to argue with the original article.

- Keep your letter brief, between 150-250 words.

- Include something about who you are and why you care: E.g. “I am a mother, outdoors person, teacher, business owner, scientific, religious, etc.”

- Provide your name, address, phone number and address.  The paper won’t publish these, but they want to know you are who you say you are.

- Submit your letter here.

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