Game to wildlife

State Dept. of Fish and Game changes name

For local hunters, the sky seems to be falling.

Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that will ban the use of dogs while hunting bears and mountain lions. Now, another bill that could mean loss of hunting liberties has passed: On Jan. 1, 2013, the state Department of Fish and Game will have a new name.

Assembly Bill 2402 requires renaming it the Department of Fish and Wildlife. All game is wildlife, but all wildlife is not game. Hunters worry that the adjustment will require the department to lessen its concern with management of sport hunting and increase its interest in pure conservation—and hunting prohibitions.

“I don’t believe the department was designed with all wildlife in mind,” said Buzz Huntington, whose family has owned Huntington’s Sportsman’s Store in Oroville since the 1940s. “You can’t have a department that manages every single living thing, but that’s what we’re seeing. They’re taking the emphasis away from fish and game and putting it on critters in general.”

The fishing and hunting management departments of many other states—including Oregon, a hunters’ haven—use the word “wildlife” instead of “game,” and even the hunting group California Waterfowl Association recognizes that there is more to a branch of government than its name.

“The name change causes us some concern, but we don’t believe this changes the department,” said Mark Hennelly, a spokesman for the CWA.

Yet the Humane Society of the United States was a major backer of the bill as well as Senate Bill 1221, which bans hound hunting of bears and bobcats in California starting in 2013. The involvement of an animal-rights advocate group in hunting-related lawmaking makes many outdoors enthusiasts worry that a larger anti-hunting agenda could be underway.

Jennifer Fearing, the California director of the D.C.-based group, says such concerns are unfounded and that “the name change just more accurately reflects the mission of the department.”

“The truth is the Department of Fish and Game does a lot more than just manage hunting and fishing issues,” she said, adding that 98 percent of Californians do not hunt and may prefer to think of animals as “wildlife,” not “game.”

The Department of Fish and Game took no position on the name change, according to spokesman Mike Taugher. He says that the “mission” of the department remains what it always has been—in his words, “to manage fish, wildlife and plant habitat for ecological value and to provide opportunities for recreational use.”

“Hunting and fishing have been at the core of [the department’s] mission for 142 years,” he said. “But things have changed. Now we need to consider things like endangered species, conservation and renewable-energy development. The new name reflects that broader mission, but it doesn’t change the mission.”

AB 2402 came out of a months-long “Strategic Vision” process in which dozens of stakeholder groups participated in discussions on how to improve the efficiency and transparency of the department. The Humane Society of the United States maintained a major presence in the process.

The CWA’s Hennelly says the involvement of the Humane Society of the United States in affairs related to hunting and fishing in California “makes us very nervous.”

“Our fear is that they will influence the department,” he said. “They’re a group that is basically opposed to the department’s mission of providing hunting and fishing opportunities in California, and we don’t see how [the HSUS] can possibly work with the Department of Fish and Game.”

Changing the department’s official name will cost the state money at a time when resources are short. Taugher says the DFG believes the cost will run higher than the $300,000 previously estimated by backers of the bill. Expenses will come from replacement of plaques, vehicle doors, road signs, officer badges and business cards. Most existing signage will be “phased out of existence” over time, Taugher said.

At Huntington’s Sportsman’s Store, Buzz Huntington insists the name change carries real symbolic meaning and could lead to major changes in the operation of the department.

“If you change the name, you start to change the character of the board, and soon you’ll have people running the department who don’t like hunting and just like tweety birds,” he said. “It will be a slow process, but it could be very real, and eventually environmental groups could entirely end hunting in California.”