A nationwide campaign is underway to limit the influence of hunters in crafting wildlife policy. The movement has gained traction in recent years as proponents work to restructure state game commissions to be less responsive to the wishes of hunters.
“This movement has really spread throughout the country,” Joe Mullin told MeatEater. Mullin works for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation as the Northeastern States Manager, and he reports that he’s observed “a more concerted, organized, and accelerated effort” to pass bills that remodel game commissions along less hunter-friendly lines.
Director of State Policy and Stewardship for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Tim Brass, has also been tracking this movement.
“Historically, sportsmen have had a big voice, and we’re concerned not only that we’re losing some of the voices we have had, but in some cases the people that they’re putting on the commissions under the ‘sportsman’s’ name are questionable in terms of their credentials as hunters and anglers,” he said in an interview with MeatEater.
Mullin identified efforts in Washington State, Maryland, Vermont, New Hampshire, Colorado, New Mexico, and Oregon that would make it easier to install anti-hunting proponents on the governing bodies meant to manage game species.
Wildlife for All, an environmental nonprofit, most clearly articulates the ideas that underwrite these efforts. Organized by current and former employees of the Humane Society, the Sierra Club, Wildearth Guardians, Animal & Earth Advocates, and Project Coyote (among others), Wildlife for All describes the current system of wildlife management as “outdated.”
“The hallmarks of this outdated system are a focus on producing a harvestable surplus of game animals under an agricultural model [and] preference given to consumptive wildlife users (hunters, anglers and trappers) over the broader public,” Wildlife for All says on its website. They seek to replace the current model with one based on the “public trust doctrine,” which they define as including a responsibility to protect “all life.”
If their efforts are successful, Mullin warns that the voices of hunters and anglers will be diminished. “If game commissions don’t have adequate representation from the outdoor sporting community, decisions will likely be made to the detriment of hunters, trappers, recreational shooters. There’d be no safeguards to prevent obstructionism at that point,” he said.
For over 80 years, hunters and anglers have formed the bedrock of the American system of conservation funding. This “user pays, public benefits” structure has allowed the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation to become the world’s most successful conservation framework, and hunters and anglers nationwide have contributed over $25.5 billion. This money has been used to save wetlands and bring species like turkeys and whitetail deer back from the brink of extinction.
State game commissions work with state wildlife agencies to manage a state’s natural resources, and many have statutory mandates to set hunting seasons, maximize hunting opportunities, and set bag limits. Game commissioners are appointed in a variety of ways, but many also require a certain level of representation from the hunting community. (Some, for example, require commissioners to hold hunting or fishing licenses for a certain number of years before being considered for the position.)
But recent legislation would seek to change that system. In Maryland, for example, House Bill 188 was endorsed by the Humane Society would require representatives from the “wildlife preservation” and “passive wildlife recreation communities” to serve on the state’s Wildlife Advisory Commission.
“This bill is giving a diverse set of stakeholders seats at the table on this commission,” bill sponsor Delegate Julie Palakovich Carr said.
In New Mexico, House Bill 486 takes the “public trust” language from Wildlife for All and uses it to rewrite state wildlife policy. Instead of providing for “an adequate and flexible system” to “provide and maintain an adequate supply of game and fish,” this new system would manage the state’s wildlife “as a public trust resource with intrinsic and ecological value, as well as for the benefit, use, food supply and nonconsumptive enjoyment of all.”
Wildlife for All praises a similarly worded New Mexico bill as an example of the kind of statutory changes the group would like to see in all states.
Washington State has become a lightning rod for this issue as some members of the Wildlife Commission seek to change the “overarching principles” that dictate how game is managed in the state.
Commissioner Lorna Smith recently introduced a draft outline for a new wildlife management plan that she says will radically change how game species are managed.
“It’s the overarching principles and background that we’re going to update significantly with things like my issues page. We’re not just putting a new cover on the old game management plan,” she said at a February 17 meeting of the Special Wildlife Committee.
The outline includes topics such as “Changing Faces, Changing Values, Changing Funding Support” and “Confounding Factors to Managing Hunting to ‘Optimal’ Levels.” Another point would classify coyotes and ground squirrels as managed species, though none of the commissioners argued that these species are in trouble.
“We need to look at species where now there are no regulations dealing with limitations on hunting or killing these species,” said commissioner Melanie Rowland. “I don’t know how you would define hunting differently. I think that’s something we should consider.”
These states aren’t alone. Georgia is considering a bill that some see as a Trojan horse for limiting the influence of hunters. Vermont considered a bill last year that would have stripped the Fish and Wildlife Board of its rulemaking authority and allowed a wider variety of entities to appoint members. A New Hampshire bill would have reduced the number of years a member of the fish and game commission was required to hold a resident fishing, hunting, or trapping license. Missouri, Nebraska, and Michigan have also introduced legislation in recent years intending to alter the composition and/or nomination process for commissions.
Many commissioners oppose these efforts, of course. Washington State commissioner Jim Anderson cautioned his colleagues about their plan to rewrite the game management document.
“I think the hunting public doesn’t want to see all the efforts that have gone on in the past cast aside as something that’s seen as new and better,” he said. “The way that is worded strikes me as being a negative way of talking about hunting.”
Sportsmen’s Alliance filed a lawsuit this week against Washington State commissioner Lorna Smith, but not directly for her actions while on the committee. They say Washington law prohibits someone from serving on the commission while holding another elected or appointed office (Smith is currently a member of the Jefferson County Planning Commission).
“We view this lawsuit as the initial step of a long but important process to bring sanity and decency back to wildlife decision-making in Washington," Todd Adkins, vice president of government affairs at the Sportsmen’s Alliance said. "It all starts here, but trust me, it won’t end here."
Certain hunting groups have voiced support for some aspects of this agenda. Hunters of Maryland, for example, joined with the Sierra Club to support HB 188. “Wildlife belongs to no one person, wildlife belongs to the citizenry,” said spokesman William R. Miles. “Diverse individuals, groups and organizations, who want a broader advisory voice in how Maryland’s DNR manages wildlife, is a good thing and should be afforded every opportunity.”
It’s also worth noting that “public trust” is a key tenet of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, and this doctrine has been used to guarantee hunters and anglers access to land, water, and wildlife. Many hunters, especially public land hunters, would agree that no one owns wildlife, including those who harvest animals for food.
It is unclear, however, whether Wildlife for All’s interpretation of the “public trust doctrine” aligns with its traditional meaning. Their desire to abolish wildlife commissions and represent “non-consumptive users” in proportion to their demographic in the general population is certainly out of step with how the public trust doctrine has traditionally been implemented.
Mullin also argues that efforts to change the composition of state game agencies will make it “easier for obstructionist behavior.” As hunters have seen in Washington State, it only takes a few commissioners to make proceedings grind to a halt.
“Rather than the commissions getting down to brass tacks, shaking up the composition would lower the door for anti-sportsmen to make their way in,” Mullin said.
Washington State commissioner Kim Thorburn expressed a similar concern in an interview with The Lewiston Tribune. “They don’t want to admit their decisions are based on their own advocacy biases,” she said of fellow commissioners Smith and Rowland, “so they have the tactic of paralyzing the staff effort, demanding impossible workloads of them and, when they come back (with products), saying, ‘That isn’t what we asked for.’”
Ultimately, both Brass and Mullin believe that anti-hunting groups see changing the makeup of game commissions as stepping stones toward their larger goals.
“The anti-hunting community is seeing these commissions as a vehicle to make changes in conjunction with legislative efforts and ballot initiatives. It’s another vessel that they see to carry out their objectives,” Mullin said.
A state game commission can be politicized against hunters in more ways than one. Brass pointed out that commissions can harm hunters if they favor landowners or outfitters over public land users. He’s also concerned about national campaigns that seek to cut off Pittman-Robertson funding, which have been pushed from both the right side of the aisle and the left.
Wherever these threats may arise, it’s crucial for hunters, anglers, and all outdoor enthusiasts to stay engaged in the process, Brass said. He encouraged hunters to show up at commission meetings, be good spokespeople, and build relationships. Even if a commissioner doesn’t agree with hunters on most issues, it’s still important to engage.
“We need to show up at those commission meetings to make sure the sportsmen’s voice is still heard. We have the opportunity to hold them accountable by being there and helping to offer up good, well-reasoned arguments,” Brass said.
Hunters should use their voices to ensure their commissions make decisions based on science–not personal vendettas.
“In the end, if they’re not basing their decisions on science and the wildlife biologists’ recommendations and they’re attacking hunters because they just don’t like it, that is really problematic,” Brass said. “Representative or not, we can’t have that. We’re going down a pretty slippery slope.”
On a larger scale, hunters can do more to tell the full story of habitat and conservation funding, MeatEater’s Director of Conservation, Ryan Callaghan, said. Those stories can combat misinformation about hunters that some commissioners use to advocate for anti-hunting policies.
“It is our responsibility as hunters to promote the work we do,” Callaghan said. “Great whitetail habitat or sage grouse habitat or bear habitat is great habitat for a wide host of wildlife that falls under the ‘non-consumptive’ label. We hunters know that a tag in the pocket does not represent a dead animal. I have a pillowcase full of expensive tags that have never been notched. It's our responsibility to make sure people know those stories too.”