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A call for new blood to oversee NH's wilds

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 25. 2018 10:29PM
State Rep. Jeff Goley, NH Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus member 

Rick Van de Poll, representing recreational interests

CONCORD - State Rep. Jeff Goley, now in his ninth term, has seen his share of debates over how New Hampshire should manage its wildlife.

The Manchester Democrat, a member of the Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus, was among the sponsors of 2014 legislation creating a commission on the future of the Fish and Game Department and served as chairman of that commission.

He may have been experiencing some déjà vu as yet another commission with the identical purpose began its work Tuesday, taking testimony from both sides on what has become a decadelong debate over who gets a voice on the commission when it comes to developing wildlife management policies.

"I have reservations as to who gets another seat at that table," Goley said. "I think we all know there are people and organizations out there looking to stop hunting and fishing and trapping in this state. I have a problem with that."

Goley pointed out that state law on the role of the Fish and Game Department is clear.

"If you go back to the law, it says Fish and Game must preserve our special heritage by preserving opportunities to hunt and fish," he said. "By watering down the commission, we will move away from that."

Watering down the commission in Goley's view means broadening its membership to include individuals who may not hold a hunting, fishing or trapping license - currently a legal requirement to serve on the commission.

Rick Van de Poll, appointed to the commission to represent so-called "recreational interests" like hiking and kayaking, urged the commission to take a broader view. He alluded to the 2008 audit of Fish and Game operations by the Legislative Budget Assistant that set the 10-year debate in motion.

Decline in hunting

That audit called on the department to embrace stakeholders beyond the traditional community of hunters, fishermen and trappers.

"While the number of the department's hunting, fishing and trapping constituents has been declining, non-consumptive users who benefit from the department's efforts to conserve and protect wildlife species and habitats have been on the rise," the audit stated.

"This broader user base has not been well integrated into the governance, policy-making and financial support of the department. It is in the best interests of both wildlife and the people of New Hampshire that the financial operations of the department are structured in a way that is representative, efficient, effective and financially secure."

Translation: Get more "non-consumptive" users on the Fish and Game Commission and you might have better luck getting them to pick up some of the costs.

"The question which I think is still pertinent today since the audit is whether the Fish and Game Commission is able to handle all the decision-making responsibilities for all parts of the department," Van de Poll said.

Weldon Bosworth of Milford, a member of the New Hampshire Wildlife Coalition, was less diplomatic in his public testimony before the commission.

"Is the (Fish and Game) commission essentially a cartel for the trappers and hunters?" he asked. "If you want to get some money from the state, you have to get more constituents into the business."

Bosworth told the study panel in public testimony that fears of groups wanting to close down hunting and trapping are overblown.

"There are moderate organizations that do not have that goal," he said. "Why should I as a kayaker or canoer pay a fee if I don't have any representation? There are a lot of people who do not try to help Fish and Game because their ideals are not represented. It's taxation without representation."

Sununu nominations

On Wednesday, Gov. Chris Sununu made his eighth nomination to the 11-member commission and said he is open to the idea of broadening membership.

"I think there is definitely a possibility there," he said. "I have to say, finding folks that meet all the different requirements to even be nominated has been challenging."

Under current law any nominee must be "an active outdoorsman holding a resident fishing, hunting, or trapping license in at least five of the 10 years preceding the appointment."

"The current structure of the Fish and Game Department is really a vestige of decades and decades ago, so any chance we have to modernize the system, to bring it up to speed, makes perfect sense," Sununu said. "But I think the Legislature is where those discussions need to happen."

The Legislature, if the past 10 years are any indication, is not inclined to make significant changes in how the Fish and Game Department is structured or funded.

"Certainly the makeup of the commission, its duties and requirements for commissioners, is a touchy subject, fraught with politics and emotion," said Glenn Normandeau, now in his third four-year term as executive director of the agency. "I don't really have a particular problem with the existing makeup myself."

Normandeau points out that the governor nominates commissioners and can influence the direction the agency takes through those appointments. "Tens of thousands of people have fishing licenses in New Hampshire," he said. "It isn't that onerous of a requirement."

On Friday at the 64th annual NH Trappers Rendezvous in Belmont - a regional gathering of outdoor enthusiasts - there was little appetite for change to the commission.

Dwight Pennell of Tuftonboro, incoming president of the NH Trappers Association, said he is not opposed to a wildlife biologist or other scientist on the commission, but firmly believes that all nominees need to hold a hunting or fishing license. He sees this as insurance against appointment of a commissioner who is opposed to the killing of any animal.

Current association President Roger Burnham of Hebron was of a similar mindset. Burnham said he believes that prospective commissioners need to ascend through the ranks as a sportsman before being able to adopt rules or policy that can affect the industry.

"It needs to stay the way it is," he said.

Next generation

Sununu has been putting his stamp on Fish and Game, which he has tangled with on at least two occasions during his first term - overriding the agency on the fate of errant bears and on a public access boat ramp on Lake Sunapee.

Of the eight commissioners he's nominated, only one was an incumbent. If the Executive Council approves the nomination of Christina Luppi, Sununu's latest nominee, the governor will have appointed seven new commissioners to the board.

Luppi, 34, whose nomination was presented to the council on Wednesday, would be only the third woman appointed to the commission in the past 10 years.

A hunter education instructor and board member with the Goffstown Fish and Game Association, Luppi has all the traditional credentials required for the position. She says she has many friends who share her love for wildlife and the outdoors, but do not hunt, fish or trap. She agrees their interests should also be represented on the commission.

"I enjoy hunting, fishing and oystering," Luppi said. "I'm also an avid kayaker, hiker and off-road enthusiast. My love and respect of our natural resources, our wildlife and our wild spaces is deeply rooted. If I am confirmed, I will bring a fresh perspective and represent a different and growing demographic of outdoor enthusiasts. The next generation of conservationists."

No matter how the commission changes, some state representatives like Bob L'Heureux, R-Merrimack, are determined that its mission remain the same. L'Heureux, a 22-year veteran of the State House and vice chairman of the Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee, was uncompromising in his testimony to the study commission.

"It's the wildlife sportsman department," he said. "That's the way I've always felt about it, and always will feel about it."

Union Leader correspondent Bea Lewis contributed to this report.

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