Wildlife Commissions Are Under Threat. Here’s How Hunters Can Help.

July 2, 2024 By: Catherine Appling-Pooler

There’s been a surge in challenges against wildlife commission authorities in recent legislative sessions across the country. States like Kentucky, Kansas, and Vermont proposed various legislation changing the authority or roles of state wildlife agency commissions. This wave of scrutiny prompts questions like:

  • What defines a wildlife commission?
  • What functions do they fulfill?
  • Why should changing their authority concern us?

What is a Wildlife Commission?

While each state’s natural resources agency may have its own unique structure and functions, the role of the commission can be likened to that of a board of executives. They oversee the high-level leadership within the department, including the director, and play a crucial role in approving annual budgets, administrative rules, and hunting and fishing regulations. Additionally, they serve as representatives for the interests of their commission districts and the hunters and anglers who live within those districts. Commissioners are typically appointed by the governor to serve fixed terms, although some may not have term limits. This means they can be re-appointed indefinitely, “retire,” or a governor can choose not to re-appoint a commissioner for various reasons.

Commissions are supposed to prioritize the interests of hunters and anglers and to provide equal consideration when making management decisions with the advice from state agency staff. It is important commissions remain independent and unbiased so they are not swayed or influenced by special interest groups. This means choosing people to serve on wildlife commissions is important to ensure the proper stewardship of fish and wildlife resources while also considering the desires of sportsmen.

Most wildlife commissioners are appointed by a state’s governor. Recent proposals in many states sought to change the way commissioners are selected or appointed.

Commissions Under Threat

Attention must be paid to the process of selecting commissioners. Recent legislative proposals nationwide have suggested changes to the positions of authority responsible for this selection. NDA firmly advocates for maintaining the current system, where commissioners are typically chosen based on their knowledge and dedication to conservation. Changes to this time-tested process are deemed unnecessary, considering its decades-long track record of effective operation.

NDA conducted a survey across states and provinces to gather insight into agency decision-making structures and legislative involvement. These findings are detailed in our 2024 Deer Report.

Of the 44 states that participated in our survey, 38 (86%) reported having a decision-making body, typically in the form of a commission. Notably, the overwhelming majority of these state wildlife agency governing bodies (37 out of 38 states; 97%) are appointed, which further highlights the need for impartial selection when choosing commissioners. 

This requires hunters to be involved and aware of the legislation happening in their home states. Without proper checks and balances, fish and wildlife management decisions could be put into the hands of individuals who do not have adequate wildlife knowledge, experience, or the best interests in mind for fish, game, and sportsmen. 

Commissions Played a Role in Wildlife Restoration

The roots of wildlife governance trace back to the 1800s, when commercial hunting wreaked havoc on native species, particularly big game such as white-tailed deer. In response, protective laws were put in place to safeguard shrinking populations.Thus, began the multi-level government wildlife management that we have today. Management requires federal, state, and local stakeholders to work together to conserve and nurture wildlife populations and our outdoor heritage. An important component of The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is that wildlife is held in trust by the state or province government for all citizens to enjoy. The key players in managing our wildlife are:

  • Trust Managers: Conservation professionals in government such as biologists, game wardens, technicians etc. 
  • Trustees: elected and appointed officials like commissioners, senate and house wildlife committees, and state leadership.
  • Beneficiaries: non-government entities and citizens like you and me. 

NDA’s Position

In summary, there is a pressing need for experienced conservationists who understand and value hunting and fishing to serve on wildlife commissions. This specific part of wildlife governance, the role of wildlife commissions, demands and deserves qualified leaders who can make informed decisions about state agency budgets, administrative rules, and hunting and fishing regulations. Our roles as advocates, stewards, and managers are vital pieces in preserving our natural heritage. However, the recent challenges to wildlife management authorities have highlighted the need for understanding of the structures that govern these efforts. 

Consequently, the selection process for commissioners becomes a pivotal point in ensuring effective stewardship and governance. Therefore, the attacks from special interest groups to raid wildlife commissions we have seen during this past legislative session are a concerning affront on wildlife conservation and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Again, NDA firmly advocates for maintaining the current system. Governors should continue to appoint qualified people for these positions that have the best interest in mind for wildlife and outdoorsmen in mind. 

The best way to keep informed about policy matters impacting wildlife conservation and especially Northern American deer species is to join NDA so that you can be notified of important issues in your state. NDA’s online Advocacy Center is also a great way to contact your state and federal representatives when the need arises to share your position.

About Catherine Appling-Pooler: