Lawmakers angle to overhaul state wildlife and parks commission

Consternation about a possible ban on feeding deer on private land triggered a backlash from lawmakers as well as hunting and fishing enthusiasts.

By

State News

March 8, 2024 - 2:59 PM

Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Secretary Brad Loveless speaks in favor of creating a state park out of the LeHigh quarry and trails complex during testimony in March. Register file photo

TOPEKA — The administrative rebellion waged in the Capitol against the Kansas Wildlife and Parks Commission is being led by men and women with expertise in firearms, arrows, hooks and other tools of hunting, fishing and trapping.

But implements on this conflict are paper and ink used to advance House and Senate legislation to dissolve the current commission appointed unilaterally by the governor and to create a new seven-person commission selected by the Republican Senate president, House speaker and attorney general and by the Democratic governor.

Gov. Laura Kelly would get four selections and the three other politicians would make one each. Democratic Party leaders in the Legislature would have no appointment authority in terms of the new commission.

In addition, legislation endorsed by the Senate and a House committee would mandate all commission appointees be subjected for the first time to the Senate confirmation process. That would include background investigations, fingerprinting, submission of tax information, filing of statements of substantial interest and appearances before a legislative committee before a vote of the Senate. The commissioners would remain unpaid volunteers.

For good measure, legislators frustrated by the commission have sought to strip the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks secretary of eminent domain power to create public parks or expand access to these recreational magnets.

El Dorado Rep. Will Carpenter, a Republican, said the current commission wasn’t sufficiently invested in hunting or fishing for consumptive purposes.

“I know from past experience, lots of times it’s a political appointment,” Carpenter said. “You get a lot of ‘parks’ people on there … who are not consumptive fishermen or hunters. They’re making policy decisions, quite frankly, that they don’t even know about because they don’t hunt or fish.”

Rep. Pam Curtis, D-Kansas City, said the existing appointment system worked well and the proposed overhaul of the commission would intensify the politics of wildlife and parks administration.

“I don’t think we want to make this a political body,” Curtis said. “That would push us much more into the political realm versus science and experts in managing our wildlife and parks. Do we want to pass something we think will have some muster? Or, do we want to pass something we know is going to be DOA?”

‘Not real hunting’

Hunting and fishing enthusiasts have let it be known they were irritated the commission and department entertained the idea of prohibiting bait feeding of deer on private property. The practice, banned on public land in Kansas, enticed deer to take advantage of a regular food source on property accessible to landowners who hunted or to individuals from other communities or states who paid for the opportunity to hunt a trophy. Skeptics of baiting believe it granted hunters an unethical advantage. In Nebraska, for example, it was illegal to hunt any big game animals or turkeys within 200 yards of a baited area.

“I see a huge problem with fair chase in Kansas,” said Troy Sporer, a current wildlife and parks commissioner from Oakley. “It’s not real hunting anymore. Let’s just go bait ’em up, figure out what time they’re there and lets go shoot ’em.”

The commission’s interest in the ethics of baiting deer and creating for wildlife a fair-chase environment was interpreted as a financial threat to the hunting industry in Kansas and inspired lobbying at the Capitol to tilt commission appointments toward people vested in maintaining a business-like approach. Commission critics also raised issues about timing of hunting seasons or availability of hunting licenses.

“I believe the current department leadership and the current commission has lost their way over the past three years,” said Don Budd, a former wildlife and parks commissioner appointed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

Jeff Cooper, an attorney and representative of Hunter Nation headquartered in Mission, said lack of practical knowledge among commissioners allowed for reckless debates about the possibility of a bait ban. That could be avoided in the future with passage of a law diversifying the commission, he said.

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