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California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) officials responsible for the move to eliminate state game refuges were lambasted by the public and several state, federal and national groups and agencies.
Out of about 5,000 comments received, more than 90 percent opposed the move that would effectively open the refuges to hunting under state regulations.
Second-generation local game warden Bob Orange, now retired, has been following this issue closely.
He found three main themes in the comments after reviewing more than half of them.
Many comments were solely opinion: the people wanted to keep the refuges in place.
The second major theme was the failure of DFG officials to actively notify and involve the public, as required by the Legislature.
And the third major theme addressed the need for environmental studies and reviews to validate DFG claims in their proposal, as well as more opportunities for public comment during some of these review processes, especially for those refuges located on national forest lands.
Feather Publishing received an advance copy of the DFG report to the Legislature before it was presented to the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
Since it arrived third-hand, DFG Counsel Colin Mills was asked to verify its authenticity, which he did.
For the past six months he has provided no estimated delivery date for the report or the collection of public comments, which he did finally send out Thursday, April 21, though personal information, and even some of the public affiliations of the respondents, had been redacted.
He did not know the report had already been provided to Tehama County Fish and Game Advisory Commission members, one of whom forwarded it to Orange.
“You’ve got to see this,” Orange said, before providing it to Feather Publishing.
Lack of public outreach
At first glance, Orange noticed DFG claims of public outreach were not all they appeared.
DFG officials claim in their report to the Legislature that information about their intent was posted on the DFG website in July, and a public notice about it was published in August, also on their website.
Then, in September, they said letters were sent to county fish and game commissions.
The report writer stated that the evaluation of game refuges was an agenda item on the Al Taucher Advisory Committee meeting for Sept. 14, 2010, and supposedly on the two previous meeting agendas as well.
Upon investigation by Feather Publishing, that claim is false.
There was no specific agenda item for state game refuges on the Feb. 2 meeting agenda, and no summary for the meeting was published on the state commission website, like for other meetings.
No specific agenda item for this was on the May 4 meeting agenda either, nor was there any mention of it in the summary.
For the Sept. 14 meeting there was also no specific game refuge agenda item, though the summary showed the addition of an agenda item under the “open forum and new/other business” heading.
“Dr. Eric Loft gave a brief presentation on DFG’s evaluation of the status of Game Refuges,” was written in the summary. And it provided the following link to the website post at dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/gamerefuges.
Orange watched a video feed of the meeting and said Loft’s presentation lasted “all of 60 seconds.”
There was no mention in the report of any press releases for either print or broadcast media.
Feather Publishing reporters receive several DFG press releases each month, but have not received one about the refuge issue.
On the defensive, DFG points to the number of responses received, more than 5,000, to allay criticism about their lack of effort in the public outreach department.
They also mention poor timing with increased furlough days and budget constraints.
“Despite these limitations,” reads the report, “numerous” staff members in regions and headquarters provided information about the proposal to eliminate refuges at public meetings they attended, such as state Fish and Game Commission meetings, commission advisory meetings, and county fish and game commission meetings.
They never made it to the Plumas or Tehama county fish and game commission meetings, even after multiple invitations.
The report writer also defends the lack of public outreach by listing the articles that appeared in newspapers, though he failed to mention the Nov. 24 2010 Feather Publishing article mentioned in more than one public comment.
Orange said it was the best of all of them and was probably left out because it mentioned there was no point person, phone number or address; respondents had to have Internet.
Specific outreach to landowners has not occurred, though some comments received were from landowners who would be affected by loss of refuge status,
They will be contacted if the Legislature "pursues this effort further, according to the report, and so will the rest of the public.
Although the public was invited to comment via the website, the only method listed to do so was virtually, via email or an online form at surveymonkey.com.
There was no phone number, mailing address or other accessible method provided for public comment.
The more than 5,000 comments were received by the two methods listed, and via telephone, letter and web blog, even thought those other forms of contact information were not provided to the general public in the announcement.
Most of the comments came from grassroots efforts, or “action alerts” from anti-hunting interests.
About 90 percent of the written and emailed comments were against the elimination of the refuge status, while only 65 percent of the survey comments were against it.
About 34 percent of the survey respondents thought “some of all of the refuge designations could be eliminated for a variety of reasons.”
Of special interest to DFG were the number of people who misunderstood what a game refuge was originally meant to be, and the high interest shown by people who enjoy using the refuges for other interests, like hiking, bicycling, camping and other outdoor activities.
“While public input was polarized with the anti-hunting versus pro-hunting perspective, there were some recommendations such as eliminating some refuge designations, particularly those furthest from population centers,” read the report. “At the same time, some refuges were highly recommended for retention by interest groups, organizations or landowners for a variety of other reasons than the original purpose.”
U.S. Forest Service Wildlife Biologist Adam Rich, of the Summit Ranger District on the Stanislaus National Forest, where the Tuolumne State Game Refuge is located, was one of the people who submitted an email comment.
He objects to the DFG claim that elimination will not significantly affect wildlife or ecosystems, especially in areas like his that are susceptible to wildfires.
The expected influx of hunters would increase probability of escaped campfires and other artificial ignitions in areas where there are protected activity centers for spotted owls and goshawks, which would be just two forms of wildlife endangered by wildfires.
Sensitive plant populations may be impacted by increased traffic, he stated, as could the spread of noxious weeds.
He also claims DFG is unprofessional in its claims that the refuges are a failure due to declining deer populations.
“Refuge status has been in place for 100 years and in the face of a declining deer herd, eliminating refuge status at this time would be risky from a wildlife management standpoint,” he wrote.
He also objects to the DFG claim that elimination of refuges would have no economic impact to the public.
The forest service budgets are already strained, he wrote, and increased use of refuge areas on Forest Service lands would require more road, gate and barrier maintenance and repair costs, and could potentially results in millions of dollars in expenses due to wildfires.
There would also be added law-enforcement costs, he wrote, as well as even more impact to public lands when private landowners react to increased use by barring the public from crossing their properties.
The Plumas Audubon Society believes the limited information provided by the DGF is biased and lacks scientific rigor.
Members take the DFG to task over using a quote from Aldo Leopold, touted as the father of wildlife, out of context.
“State game refuges have not been ‘A Tragic Waste’ as argued by Eric Loft, DFG’s Wildlife Branch Chief,” the comment reads. “They may not have been as successful as hoped because, as Loft himself states in an interview for the Silicon Valley Mercury news, DFG has not worked to improve wildlife habitat in the refuges.”
The Audubon directors pledged to work with DFG to improve habitat in the refuges, like they have done elsewhere in the county on private and public lands.
“Working together we can improve the state game refuge system and ensure wildlife protection for the next 100 years,” their comment concludes.
Dr. Steven White, of the San Jose State University Department of Biological Sciences, takes DFG to task over eliminating the refuges without suggesting an alternative to help the declining deer population in the state.
Then he goes on to lambaste the agency further because the regulatory processes it touts as being in place have already proven ineffective if the population has been in decline for at least half the time the refuges have been in existence.
“You have made no compelling arguments for opening up the state game refuges to hunting while there exist numerous logical arguments against it,” he wrote in conclusion.
Next week, see your Feather Publishing hometown weekly paper for more about the contents of the report and others’ input.
Editor’s Note: This is part one of two in-depth articles about the Department of Fish and Game’s proposed elimination of all California State Game Refuges except for the Sea Otter Game Refuge and the Farallon Islands Game Refuge.
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