Hunting Fishing

Hunters fear fading voice at Fish and Game Commission

Speakers for and against the removal of the gray wolf from the threatened and endangered species lists take turns at the microphone at the Department of Fish and Wildlife Service hearing in November 2013 in Sacramento.
Speakers for and against the removal of the gray wolf from the threatened and endangered species lists take turns at the microphone at the Department of Fish and Wildlife Service hearing in November 2013 in Sacramento. Sacramento Bee file

Lifelong hunter and fisherman Jim Kellogg is hooks and bullets to the core.

He has been an outspoken advocate for anglers and hunters during his 14 years on the Fish and Game Commission, a powerful state board tasked with listing endangered species and setting the hunting and fishing regulations enforced by California’s armed game wardens.

But Kellogg, 72, resigned from his post in December. The frustration became too much, he said, with unfounded environmental concerns continually trumping the history and traditions of hunters and anglers, both on the commission and in the state at large.

“It’s the way the state of California is headed,” said Kellogg, a retired union representative from Discovery Bay. “I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but I’m smart enough to see that hunting and fishing is not a top priority with people in today’s world like it was when I grew up.”

Kellogg’s sudden departure has created angst among a camouflage crowd still smarting from recent political losses including a ban on lead hunting ammunition and the listing of wolves under the state Endangered Species Act.

And Kellogg’s seat isn’t the only one Gov. Jerry Brown needs to fill on the five-member board. Commission President Jack Baylis – whom hunters and anglers saw as less friendly – also recently resigned for unrelated reasons. Sonke Mastrup, the commission’s nonvoting, but influential, executive director, stepped down late last year to take a job with the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said the vacancies will be filled “with the most qualified, capable and committed individuals from a broad and diverse pool of applicants.”

But some hunters say they’re worried that Brown’s upcoming appointees will help complete the transformation of the commission from an organization that once advocated for sportsmen and women to one that’s philosophically more aligned with animal rights activists.

“Right now, I’m very much concerned ... because there is a strong and vocal group out there that is anti-hunting and fishing,” said Gary Flanagan, a hunter and angler from Granite Bay who serves on Placer County’s fish and game advisory board.

Animal rights and environmental activists counter that the board’s mission has evolved over the decades to handle more complex duties than just regulating hunters and anglers, who make up a small percentage of the state’s population. There are about 1.7 million licensed California anglers and 250,000 hunters among the nearly 39 million people living in California.

Critics say that Kellogg represented an uncompromising pro-hunting mindset on the commission that went practically unchallenged for decades.

“Any slippage of that feels like Armageddon,” said Jennifer Fearing, a lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States, which has supported various measures that Kellogg and other hunters opposed. “I can guarantee you the switch hasn’t flipped to, like, the ‘anything the Humane Society wants’ situation. That’s crazy.”

Fearing and others say that hunters are overreacting to their recent losses, which included the commission voting for a statewide ban on bobcat trapping and the protection of the gray wolf under the state’s Endangered Species Act. (Hunters worry that the wolves will wipe out deer and elk herds.)

Animal rights and environmental activists in recent years also have successfully turned to the Legislature when the commission declined to enact bans on hunting bear and bobcats with hounds and on the use of lead ammunition. The groups say the bans put an end to hunting methods that were barbaric and contaminated the environment.

Different factions are now lobbying Brown in the hopes he’ll appoint replacements favorable to their causes.

Whomever Brown picks will play an important role in shaping state environmental policy, as well as the future of hunting and fishing. The commission’s endangered species rulings can impact mining, logging, dams, development and water use. The board has the authority to restrict human activities in off-shore areas, and it sometimes acts as an arbiter over disputes that can arise from Department of Fish and Wildlife permits and licensing.

“The scope and responsibilities of the commission have vastly expanded over its nearly 150 years of existence,” commission spokeswoman Jordan Traverso said in an email. “Their work is more than hunting, fishing and endangered species. Today it also reflects the size and diversity of California’s population, the advances of scientific knowledge, habitat conservation and ecosystem-based wildlife management.”

The state’s shifting priorities also can be seen in department name changes. In 2012, state lawmakers voted to change the name of the Department of Fish and Game to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, out of concerns the “game” was too hunter-centric and didn’t reflect the agency’s broader mission.

The Fish and Game Commission sets policies for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at UC San Diego, said appointments such as the ones to the Fish and Game Commission usually go unnoticed, but they are important. “The governor can really steer government a different direction by having the top layer of civil servants as people who agree with (his) vision,” he said.

The three current members of the board are all Brown appointees. Commissioners are picked by the governor, but their appointments require state Senate confirmation.

The board’s only hunter is Eric Sklar, a winery owner and former vice mayor of St. Helena. He said concerns about his fellow commissioners having it out for hunters are unfounded. Instead, Sklar said the commission has an obligation to respond to “non-consumptive users” when they raise legitimate concerns.

“Philosophically, as a hunter, I believe you eat you what you kill,” he said. “While I’m a hunter, I’m not a big supporter of killing for sport or for trophies. ... That’s an example of where my personal values enter in the equation and should, I think.”

Animal rights and environmental activists say Kellogg’s ideology harkens back to a day when the Fish and Game Commission was completely beholden to hunters and anglers. They also contend that the commissioners who overrode Kellogg on the issues of bobcat trapping and protecting wolves were responding to the demands of a more humane and sophisticated state.

“All too often in the past we’ve seen commissioners basing their decisions on simply pleasing the hunting constituency, regardless of what the law or the science should dictate,” said Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group based in Tucson, Ariz., that has been among those advocating for less state-sanctioned killing of predators.

Based on his mixed record on hunting, it’s difficult to predict whom Brown will appoint.

Brown signed legislation in 2012 restricting the use of dogs in hunting bears and bobcats. He signed a measure the following year banning the use of lead ammunition in hunting. But he vetoed a proposal to ban the sale of certain semi-automatic rifles and has reacted skeptically to a ballot measure this year to further strengthen gun laws he says already are the strongest in the country.

In his 2013 veto of a measure that would have treated semi-automatic rifles that accept detachable magazines as assault weapons, Brown said prohibiting such rifles would restrict guns used for hunting, firearms training and marksmanship practice, and he argued against an “infringement on gun owners’ rights.”

But Brown’s enactment of the lead ammunition ban that same year roiled hunters. They argued the bill would make bullets more expensive and difficult to find. Environmentalists had argued lead poses health risks to people and animals.

In a signing statement on the bill, Brown acknowledged that hunters provide a critical funding source for wildlife agencies and habitat programs, so he was worried the “impression left from this bill is that hunters and sportsmen and women in California are not conservationists.”

Typically, hunting and fishing revenue and other related fees account for about a quarter of the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s total budget. Those funds accounted for about $133 million in the 2015 and 2016 budget. Hunter fees also provide a critical source of funding for wildlife refuges.

Fearing brushes off suggestions that the Humane Society or other animal advocacy groups hold any sort of undue influence with Brown or with the commission. Instead, she said that their recent victories show a slight leveling of the playing field. “What’s happened is it has become a forum where we’re allowed to occasionally actually bring ideas forward instead of playing constant defense,” she said, “which is where we were forever.”

She said in a state as liberal as California, hunters might want to consider dropping the “my way or the highway” style of no-compromise of lobbying and advocacy that’s used to great effect in more conservative states by organizations such as the National Rifle Association. She said that won’t fly in the Golden State. “They’re going to lose more by being that way,” she said.

Bill Gaines, a longtime lobbyist for hunting and fishing causes, said California’s hunters need to do a better job of educating the public about how important they are to habitat and conservation funding. “The overlying majority of California’s urban public just doesn’t have an understanding of hunting at all and the positive benefits,” he said.

As for Kellogg, he sees the shifting priorities disenfranchising hunters in California.

“When I grew up, a young kid, a boy especially had a BB gun in one hand and a fishing pole in another, spending all their time outdoors,” he said. “In today’s world, the kids spend all the time sitting on the couch with a remote control in one hand and a cellphone in the other. It’s just a different world today, and I understand that. I just got tired of being on the other side of that and figure someone else can do it for a while.”

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow