A BLOODY anachronism was reborn last month, when a low-profile government council overturned a ban on predator shooting contests.
Controversy was sparked by a "sporting" event called Predator Hunt Extreme. This competition offers $10,000 for those who bag the most foxes, bobcats, coyotes and mountain lions within a set period. Up to six similar contests are held throughout the state.
In a moment of integrity, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission banned such hunts in September, after the public raised hell.
The commission's decision came on the heels of a lengthy report from the state Game and Fish Department citing public outrage, as well as reporting high manpower costs for handling citizens' complaints. Of 13,856 comments received by AGF, 12,875 supported a complete ban on the contests. Some 37 percent of those supporting the ban were Arizona hunting license holders.
"The benefits of banning these hunting contests and pacifying a large constituency outweighs the cost of the rule-making to organizers and communities that benefited from the contests," a department report concluded. A subsequent statement from the AGF Commission said, "The Commission believes the economic impact of the contests is minimal on an individual basis," and noted that "this ban will be effective in protecting the general rights of hunters, while removing an activity that a majority of the public found offensive and unnecessary."
Apparently, the Governor's Regulatory Review Council felt otherwise. In a surprise decision, it overturned the ban early last month, claiming that halting the contests would deprive rural communities of beloved cash cows.
Attempts to contact Regulatory Council Chairman Tim Boncoskey were unsuccessful. Repeated calls to council members C. Webb Crockett and Thomas McKinley weren't returned.
The council's move angered not only animal rights activists and environmentalists, but many hunters as well. Even Duane Shroufe, director of the AGF, sounded dismayed in a follow-up memo released to staffers. "The Department appreciates the hard work and involvement of all employees who worked on this lengthy rule-making process," Shroufe wrote. "You can be proud of your efforts and those of your co-workers."
Now the department -- and the commission -- stands at a crossroads: they can either let the onerous decision stand, or somehow rework their position and resubmit it to the council. The commission will tackle the issue during a public meeting in Tucson this Friday, March 17.
Whether commissioners have the guts for follow-up remains to be seen. "The (council's decision) was not only a disappointment, but was a shock," says current commission Chairman Hays Gilstrap. "We are being briefed on that in detail in our upcoming meeting. After that complete briefing, then we'll go from there as to our course of actions."
But Gilstrap's disappointment must not be overly keen: he actually joined Commissioner Dennis Manning in voting against the ban, while commissioners Mike Golightly, Joe Carter and then-chairman Bill Berlat supported it. Gilstrap declined to explain his vote, except to say that, "At the time, we were telling one group of people what they were doing that offended another group of people was inappropriate."
However, one source close to the action, who requested anonymity, says Gilstrap and Manning were quite angry over the commission vote, and later lobbied the council to overturn the ban. "They were almost maniacal about it," the source says.
Gilstrap vehemently denies the charge. "I can't speak for Mr. Manning, but I'm confident that he didn't," he says. "Speaking totally for myself, that is a ludicrous lie. That would be sick for someone to pull a trick like that."
Attempts to reach Dennis Manning for comment were unsuccessful.
Conversely, in a nasty letter to Rep. Kathleen Dunbar pushing a proposed referendum making wildlife initiatives tougher to pass (see "Wrestling With Wildlife," March 9), Bill Berlat milked the group's position. "The commission acted responsibly in the predator contest hunting ban," he wrote, "at great expense, I might add."
Others view the vote as a momentary lapse in a pattern of otherwise irresponsible behavior. "People on the commission now seem more concerned about whether there is four-wheel-drive access (to public lands) than whether there is overall protection of wildlife," says Sandy Bahr, legislative watchdog for the Sierra Club. "And they seem to have totally abdicated their responsibility for non-game wildlife."
As reported earlier by the Tucson Weekly, such criticism is hardly unfounded, given that three of the five commissioners -- Golightly, Berlat and Gilstrap -- are members of Safari Club International. Headquartered in Tucson, the group has been repeatedly linked to illegal hunting activities, including the trophy killing of animals internationally recognized as endangered.
While some hunters defend the competitions as game management tools, "I think that's totally bogus," Bahr says. "Game and Fish can find ways to manage predators. They should talk to scientists, who would explain that the reason we have so many mid-level predators such as coyotes is that we've eliminated the large predators. For example, in places where wolves have come back in substantial numbers, we've seen coyote populations come down."
Echoing Bahr, former AGF Commissioner Tom Woods says many hunters despise the contests. "I'm a lifelong hunter myself," he says, "and I think it is completely wrong to commercialize wildlife like this."
He says the issue has sparked divisions among sportsmen, with many viewing the ban as "a foot under the tent" towards outlawing all hunting and fishing on public lands. "Still, Game and Fish's own study shows that most hunters oppose the contests" as less than sportsmanlike, he says. "They tend to be supported by people who just go on the weekend to see who can kill the most animals."
The Game and Fish Commission will reconsider hunting contests in a public meeting beginning at 9 a.m. Friday, March 17, at Inn Suites, 6201 N. Oracle Road. For information, call (602) 942-3000.