Shooting Blanks

Strapped for cash and confounded by our state’s changing demographics, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is hunting for a new mission.

THE MOST COMPELLING EVIDENCE that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is an agency at a crossroads—maybe even in the cross hairs —was the annual public meeting of its nine-member commission in August. It was conducted under the sort of red-alert security usually associated with a high-profile murder trial: While an impressive number of law enforcement agents stood watch, disparate groups of hunters, animal rights activists, bikers, hikers, birders, campers, and rock climbers eyed each other suspiciously as they passed through a metal detector and were warned that rigorous rules of conduct were in force.

The added security was partly a response to a recent flurry of death threats against Parks and Wildlife’s executive director, Andrew Sansom, and the high-profile commissioners appointed by Governor George W. Bush in early 1995. In an apparent effort to play to the agency’s powerful but dwindling constituency of hunters and ranchers, Bush added three prominent conservatives—baseball star Nolan Ryan, billionaire Lee Bass, and actress Susan Howard-Chrane—to the commission’s mix. But more precisely, the siege mentality reflects the controversy generated by Parks and Wildlife as it very publicly grapples with its mission.

To be sure, Parks and Wildlife is beset with problems common to many branches of state government, such as a chronic financial crunch and the clash between public and private property. But its overriding affliction is that it can’t let go of the past: It’s a traditionally rural agency attempting to serve an increasingly urban state. For years it has catered to hunters and anglers, who admittedly have paid most of the bills, yet national trends suggest that blood-sportsmen are a vanishing breed. Seventy-five years ago, practically every male in Texas over the age of twelve owned a rifle or shotgun and hunted according to the season. Today, fewer than 6 percent hunt, and not many more fish. Texas is the number three state nationwide in “hunting opportunities,” but we’re number one in bird watchers. A hard-core rancher who makes ends meet by leasing acreage to hunters recently cornered Sansom and asked: “How can I meet some of those birders?” The rancher had come to realize that birders could be nearly as large a source of revenue.

Sansom believes the real issue isn’t hunters versus non-hunters but demographics. Only 3 percent of blacks and Hispanics in Texas have ever hunted or fished, for instance, yet by the year 2030, when the state’s population is expected to be twice what it was in 1990, blacks and Hispanics will constitute a majority. “If we can’t meet that challenge,” Sansom says, “we’ll be irrelevant.” Rather than promoting other recreational activities, however, the agency’s strategy seems to be to get women, minors, and minorities to hunt. Howard-Chrane—whose claims to fame are (1) that she played a stock character on Dallas, and (2) that she was a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association—is a leader in this effort. Last year, Parks and Wildlife sponsored hunts for inner-city kids and taught hunter education as part of agriculture science in two hundred public schools.

Whatever the problems and potential solutions, there’s no denying that Parks and Wildlife is fundamentally different than it was in the old days. Once upon a time, the agency was actually two separate entities: the Texas Game and Fish Commission, which thrived on hunting and fishing license fees, and the perennially underfunded State Parks Board. Until the Legislature merged the two in 1963, Texas probably had the worst parks system in America. Velasco State Park in Brazoria County, for example, was completely under water at high tide. The marriage of these basically alien cultures was a boon to parks, but it stirred up resentment among hunters and fishermen.

By law, the mission of Parks and Wildlife has been to “protect, manage, and conserve the state’s natural and cultural resources,” but critics say the agency has lost sight of its priorities. Animal rights activist Kathy Nevils of Austin-based Action for Animals told me that after the 1995 Texas Wildlife Expo—an annual festival conceived as a celebration of hunting and fishing—she cornered commissioner Dick Heath and demanded to know what he thought Parks and Wildlife was supposed to do. According to Nevils, Heath replied: “It’s our mission to serve hunters, much like welfare agencies serve welfare recipients.” According to Heath, the conversation never took place; for Nevils to say it did, he says, is “absolutely ludicrous and self-serving, typical of people with agendas of their own.” In fact, he notes, some of the harshest criticism of the agency “comes from hunters and anglers complaining that they’re paying more than their share so the non-hunters can ride on their coattails.”

Clearly, the agency is caught between competing interests. Consider these moments from recent commission meetings:
• At a May review of the Furbearers Proclamation, which regulates the “taking” of small creatures like otters and beavers, Parks and Wildlife was asked to ban the use of steel-jawed leg-hold traps. These traps, which are routinely used by private landowners, have been outlawed by 88 countries because they are both cruel and wasteful: Oftentimes, the animals caught are not the intended target, and many are left to die or chew off their limbs. “Are these traps legal in Texas?” inquired a commissioner who apparently wasn’t aware that they were. Two months later, the commission voted to keep allowing them.
• To address the problem of tame deer that are “menacing” urban areas in great numbers, the commission declared that white-tailed deer could be moved, but only to counties where hunting is permitted. One can only imagine how deer accustomed to eating corn from homeowners’ hands will fare in a hail of bullets.
• After noting that Texas’ mourning dove population had dropped 19 percent in each of the past two years, Nevils requested that dove season be suspended. While she knew the commission would never agree to such a drastic measure, she reasoned that if you ask for the moon you might get Lubbock. Yet the commission took no action.

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