Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Of all the adventurous appointments Gov. Jim Gibbons has made, his recent remaking of the Wildlife Commission might be the most politically damaging and have the most enduring effect on land-use policy in Nevada, according to observers.
Gibbons this summer quietly appointed to the commission individuals aligned with Hunter’s Alert, a small group characterized as radical by members of larger sportsmen’s organizations.
Since taking office in 2006, Gibbons has appointed six members to the nine-member board that sets policy for the Nevada Wildlife Department. This month, on a 5-4 vote, the board installed a new chairman, Gerry Lent.
The Reno optometrist went to high school with the governor, is a former president of the Nevada Hunter’s Association and has written articles for the Hunter’s Alert newsletter.
Members of the state’s larger sportsmen’s groups fear Lent’s chairmanship could lead to a shift in policy for a commission that has in recent years worked to bring together hunters, ranchers, farmers and conservationists with a focus on protecting habitat and wildlife, including big game and smaller nongame animals.
Hunter’s Alert and some of Gibbons’ appointees to the commission have instead focused on restoring mule deer herds by pushing for increased hunting of large predators such as mountain lions and coyotes. It’s a misguided approach, according to Lent’s opponents on the commission and the ousted members of the panel.
“My fear and apprehension ... is the commission will take a myopic and narrow viewpoint,” said Jim Jeffress, who was replaced by a Gibbons appointee to the commission. Jeffress spent 31 years as a biologist for the Nevada Wildlife Department before retiring in 2003.
The Wildlife Commission is little watched by most Las Vegans. But for the rest of the state, it plays a key role in addressing the sometimes competing interests of ranchers, miners, hunters, anglers, farmers and conservationists.
Its policies have statewide effects. If, for example, the sage grouse is listed as an endangered species by the federal government — a move under consideration — it could severely restrict mining, ranching, and even renewable energy projects envisioned for rural Nevada. The Wildlife Commission could play a key role in working out compromises over land use and species protection.
The larger hunting groups see Gibbons’ appointments as a betrayal of their support of his political career. They overwhelmingly campaigned and voted for Gibbons in 2006 and when he served in Congress, and believed they had an ally in the governor’s office.
In making the recent appointments, they say, Gibbons ignored their recommendations and refused to meet with them to discuss the matter.
Typically, Wildlife Commission members have been selected from recommendations of county advisory boards.
“No sportsmen I know right now will vote for him again,” said Shane Boren, a member of the White Pine County Wildlife Advisory Board. “Quite a few, myself included, will campaign against him.”
The governor ignored calls to reappoint Bevin Lister, the agricultural representative to the commission.
“We were very upset” that Lister was passed over, said Doug Busselman, executive vice president of the Nevada Farm Bureau, which represents 1,300 farmers and ranchers.
The governor’s new appointee, Grant Wallace, was unknown to anyone at the Farm Bureau, Busselman said.
Gibbons also chose not to reappoint Jack Robb, a former director of Nevada Bighorns Unlimited, the state’s biggest sportsmen’s group. Group members gathered 1,500 signatures supporting Robb and Jeffress, but were told the governor wasn’t available to meet with them, according to Larry Johnson, a Nevada Bighorns board member and president of the Coalition for Nevada’s Wildlife.
“The governor didn’t listen,” said Dan Swanson, a Wildlife Commission member. “Unfortunately, he went with one special-interest group, who he feels represents sportsmen, but they don’t.”
Johnson said Jeffress “may be the finest biologist Nevada has ever produced. To replace him with a childhood buddy, who has made incredibly inflammatory statements over the years, is unconscionable,” Johnson said.
“The individuals the governor has appointed to the Wildlife Commission have called our professional biologists liars, incompetent — made terrible personal attacks on them,” Johnson said. “To see those same people in charge of policy is extremely disconcerting.”
Johnson and others excepted commission member Mike McBeath from their criticism. McBeath voted against Lent’s becoming chairman.
The governor, in a brief interview, acknowledged the anger over his appointments.
“If you don’t appoint some people, of course they’re going to be upset,” he said.
Gibbons’ spokesman, Ben Kieckhefer, said the governor’s decision not to reappoint Jeffress and Robb had nothing to do with their performance.
“It was a desire to have additional people on, which is his prerogative,” Kieckhefer said. “I think anyone saying that the commission is going to do certain things, move in certain directions, that’s speculation at this point. Let’s see how it goes.”
Lent said those unhappy with the appointments are merely more vocal than those who wanted to see a change on the commission.
“I speak not only for myself, but thousands of sportsmen who are not pleased with the way NDOW has been run,” Lent said. “There are a lot of disgruntled sportsmen out there.”
Lent would not give specifics on what he wants to do differently, saying he had just held his first meeting and would listen to ideas from other board members. He said looking at the deer population will be a priority, but he dismissed the suggestion that he sees predators as the only cause of the population’s decline. Habitat and wildfires also play a role, he said.
Gibbons said he wants a renewed focus on increasing the mule deer population. “They’re the No. 1 moneymaker for the Department of Wildlife,” he said.
Jeffress said everyone is concerned that mule deer herds have dwindled, but the solution isn’t as simple as “knocking predators over the head to get more mule deer.”
“It takes good science,” he said.
Johnson echoed that concern. He said Hunter’s Alert and Lent have been dismissive of scientific approaches to managing wildlife and critical of the use of hunting fees to aid nonbig-game species.
Nevada Bighorns Unlimited, which has donated millions of dollars in cash and volunteer hours the department has used to get federal matching funds, has built “guzzlers” in the desert to provide animals with water.
Hunter’s Alert has derided that project as making it easier for mountain lions to kill big game.
In a January article, Cecil Fredi, president of Hunter’s Alert, wrote: “For the past few years, the favorite greenie buzzword has been biodiversity. In layman’s terms, it means spending sportsmen’s money on tweety birds, lizards, guppies and hundreds of other nongame creatures ... The sheep, deer, elk and duck clubs and other organizations claiming to represent sportsmen are not going to help in this fight. They only do feel-good things which doesn’t include fighting for hunters.”
Fredi did not return calls for comment.
Lent’s discontent with the work of other wildlife organizations is also clear.
In the Hunter’s Alert newsletter for October 2007, Lent criticized Johnson and the Coalition for Nevada Wildlife for not supporting legislation to control predators: “Nevada Hunter’s Association and Hunter’s Alert truly represent sportsmen and have initiated solutions to the serious predator problems in our state when nobody else would try.”