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Unfair Game

Ranchers Are Stampeding The Game And Fish Commission.

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FURTHER FRAYING AN already shopworn maxim, be careful what you ask for--especially when it comes to the freewheeling Arizona Game and Fish Commission.

That cautionary note comes after Bill Berlat--the commission's tantrum-prone problem child--finally blustered his way out of a job in late July, hounded by a fat list of political enemies.

But given Gov. Jane Hull's propensity for packing the commission with Safari Club bagmen and rancher sycophants, fans of Berlat's legendary anti-environmental outbursts hadn't long to mope: On July 31, Hull named Arivaca cow gal Susan Chilton as his replacement.

Now those same environmentalists who despised Berlat already miss the bullying fussbudget, as they watch Chilton, whom they consider to be even worse, ascend to his seat. The subsequent e-mail flurry has been furious. "War has been declared!" writes Nancy Zierenberg, head of Wildlife Damage Review. "The governor is stacking the G&F Commission with ranchers and grazing interests."

Sandy Bahr, the Sierra Club's legislative watchdog, also hoists a red flag. "The governor has shown her disdain for protecting Arizona's wildlife once again," she says. "Yikes!"

Like Hull's earlier commission appointments, Chilton's ordination was orchestrated by Joe Lane, head of the Arizona Cattle Growers Association, the governor's bosom buddy and her resident Rasputin on all creatures wild or otherwise. Since the ranching tribe ranks a curiously high and hallowed spot among Arizona's ruling elite, and since its chieftains tend to view environmentalists with a contempt otherwise reserved for gray wolves and tofu, it's not surprising that tree-huggers are dismayed at Hull's latest choice--and the murky way it was achieved.

But first, back to Berlat. In 1998 Hull picked the Tucson attorney to finish the late Fred Belman's term. Also a Tucsonan, Belman reportedly pushed the appointment from his deathbed.

While scattered support from ranchers, combined with backing from the state's game-hunting industry, sustained Berlat for most of his term, the commish finally went too far in his mean-spirited attacks on behalf of the super-majority ballot measure. Slated for November's election, the referendum asks voters to give up much of their power by requiring a nearly impossible two-thirds, or 67 percent, approval margin for any future wildlife initiatives to become law. The measure is vigorously supported by the commission.

Super-majority opponents say it would squelch democracy, and hamper sincere wildlife reforms. The ballot measure has also sparked a split among hunters, many of whom consider it part of a shady agenda by Hull and lawmakers to commercialize hunting, and eventually shift the lion's share of tag permits to ranchers. Under this scheme, those ranchers could then sell hunting privileges on their land to professional guides, thereby lining their own pockets, and simultaneously reducing the populations of big predators and grazing-competitive wildlife like elk. And with the super-majority hurdle in place, mom-and-pop hunters and other citizens couldn't do squat about it.

Berlat was among the super-majority's most zealous henchmen. But he committed a fatal error in trying to strong-arm Tucson Rep. Kathleen Dunbar into joining the march. When she refused and voted against the bill, Berlat fired off a nasty e-mail accusing her of siding with "animal rights extremists," and threatening to rally hunters against her current campaign for the Dist. 13 Senate seat.

Letter in hand, Dunbar promptly trotted over to the office of Senate President and fellow Republican Brenda Burns, who sympathized by neglecting to schedule Berlat's confirmation for a floor vote last session. For Berlat, that meant the gig was up. It was time to go home.

To date, the governor hasn't had much to say, either about the super-majority measure or Bill Berlat. According to Hull spokeswoman Francie Noyes, Hull simply pulled Berlat's nomination "when we realized he wouldn't be confirmed."

It didn't help that the commissioner had a penchant for sending off-color, sexist and racist on-line jokes--ranging from Chinese penis quips to wearisome frat-house misogyny--to often unwilling AGF staffers. There's even a report that the Arizona Attorney General's office is examining sexual harassment complaints made against Berlat by several women at the AGF department. Following its policy, the Attorney General's office "neither confirms nor denies its investigations," according to spokeswoman Patty Urias.

When the Weekly called Berlat for comment, a woman, presumably Mrs. Berlat, answered. "I don't want to talk to you, and I'm sure Bill doesn't either," she said, before hanging up.

True to form, however, the fire-storming barrister hardly made a graceful exit. In a vitriolic resignation letter, he wrote Hull that, "As a commissioner, I did what you appointed me to do.... The matter of importance was not the personal quirks of these two political game players (Burns and Dunbar), but the importance of the legislation that was being pursued. I remain convinced that my actions, however bothersome to these two ladies, played a critical role in the passage of (the super-majority bill)."

"Based upon my performance overall, and my loyalty to you," Berlat told Hull, "I would have expected more support from you for my continued service."

Others say Berlat enjoyed more backing from hunters than from Hull or from the ranchers, where the real power to make or break an AGF commissioner lies. Regardless, the endgame is that Hull--via Joe Lane--wants to pack the commission with pro-ranching forces under a very set agenda, says David Lukens, a Southwest Airlines pilot and president of the pro-hunting Western Gamebird Alliance.

Arizona ranchers grazing on Forest Service land are facing a regular 10-year review of their federal leases, he says. If the ranchers are shown to be overgrazing or mismanaging their allotment, they could see their grazing leases reduced. The AGF plays a technical role in that process.

Based on that, Lukens calls Chilton's appointment "a done deal," and "very, very bad for habitat issues in Arizona because it will remove Game and Fish from habitat analysis, and from making input to the Forest Service as they develop their new grazing plans." Game and Fish staffers will be "much less vocal," he warns. "They're under fear of being fired. One department researcher told me that criticizing grazing is already like poking a dragon with a stick."

Enter Susan Chilton. Unlike several other contenders, including prominent UA wildlife biologist Paul Krausman, who actually applied for the commission post, Chilton says "it was a surprise to me" when she discovered she was being considered. She says she was interviewed by a three-person panel, which included Joe Lane.

Krausman says he was also interviewed by three people--Lane, a Hull staffer and an AFG department employee. When asked how this obviously narrow selection process worked, Hull spokeswoman Francie Noyes was vague, except to confirm that Lane did the interviews.

Apparently Chilton fit Lane's profile to a tee. She arrives, however, toting a bit of Back-Forty baggage.

Susan Chilton and her husband Jim herd their 800 to 900 beeves on about 48,000 acres of public land near Arivaca. David Lukens says the property, known as the Montana Allotment, "has a sad history of being overgrazed. I've been hunting Mearns' quail on that thing since the late 1980s, and the overall condition of the allotment in terms of wildlife habitat has been severely reduced. There are hardly any Mearns' quail left."

Lukens says he submitted an overgrazing report on the Montana Allotment to the Forest Service last year, and was also on a technical review team recently visiting the ranch. But when he asked fellow team members--including the ever-present Joe Lane--to stop at spots critically damaged by overgrazing, his efforts were rebuffed. "Joe said, 'We're going where the Chiltons want to go,'" says Lukens, "and we were pretty much hustled through."

After his overgrazing report was submitted, Lukens adds, "Sue did everything but scream at me."

A member of organizations ranging from the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan Steering Committee to Lane's Arizona Cattle Growers Association, Chilton blames complaints about her property on "the more extremist (environmental) groups...who feel that anyone who's in agriculture is certainly a spoiler of the earth."

By contrast, she says "many main-line environmentalists have been out to our place. And they're aware that we're very much activists in the efforts to increase wildlife populations and habitat on our land."

As for her positions on other hot-button Arizona wildlife topics, from the AGF Commission's wavering support for federal wolf reintroduction efforts to the super-majority measure, Chilton is cagey, calling them issues she needs to "study at greater length."

Perhaps. But at least on the former, it seems more likely that she's simply playing politics, since it's tough to find ranchers who don't already harbor passionate--and usually embittered--opinions about the wolf program.

Still, sometimes a delicious, fleeting moment can peel away layers of even the best-executed subterfuge. This time it may have been sparked by the yellow-billed cuckoo.

The bird is currently being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

During the guided technical review tour attended by Lukens, one participant reportedly spotted the bird on Chilton's Montana Allotment. The new commissioner was apparently less than thrilled about the sighting.

"That is not a good thing," she allegedly replied.

And that is no big surprise, either, since western ranchers like Chilton have been among the Endangered Species Act's loudest critics, contending that it leads to unfair habitat-related restrictions on grazing.

So where does the new commissioner stand? Again, she talks around the issue. "It's entirely too broad a question to have a meaningful answer," she says. "There are aspects of (the Act) which encourage the destruction of habitat because they penalize creating habitat."

Huh?

Anyway, that Orwellian analysis should lead to plenty of head-scratching over the next few months, as Susan Chilton makes her presence known on the AGF Commission--and by default enhances Joe Lane's grip on Arizona's wildlife.

For the record, the otherwise omnipresent Lane was "unavailable for comment," according to his receptionist.

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