Gov. Kate Brown Picked a Big-Game Hunter to Serve on the Board That Manages Oregon’s Wolves

Wildlife conservation groups say Brown has sold them out in favor of ranchers, hunters and commercial fishers.

James Nash's Instagram feed showed him with big game he killed, until he took the photos down this month.

James Nash is good at killing exotic animals.

Nash's Instagram feed shows him posing with many of his prizes—including a hippopotamus, a zebra, a giant crocodile, a warthog and more pedestrian trophies, like the five coyotes he shot one winter's day.

"Finally got my hippo skull back from Africa," Nash says in the caption below a photo of him standing over the dead beast. "First shot was 5 yards. Second shot, the gun barrel was touching it."

Last week, Gov. Kate Brown appointed Nash, a rancher and hunting guide from Enterprise, to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission, which, among other duties, is responsible for the state's wolf management plan.

Oregon's leading wildlife conservation groups say appointing a big-game hunter to make wildlife policy will be disastrous for Oregon's recovering gray wolf population.

And they describe it as a betrayal by a governor who they say pledged during her re-election campaign last year to protect the threatened species—but, after winning, picked nominees favoring groups that include ranchers, loggers and commercial fishermen, and hunters whose economic interests may conflict with the desires of a majority of Oregonians.

On April 23, eight of those groups, including Oregon Wild, Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Audubon Society of Portland, sent a scorching letter to Brown, a Democrat.

"Our organizations were stunned to learn that the proposed slate of appointments to serve on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission follows the same broken model that has repeatedly failed wildlife and failed Oregonians," the groups wrote. "We were dismayed to see so many appointees who represent the very industries the commission is supposed to regulate."

Brown's spokeswoman, Kate Kondayen, said in an email the governor's staff was unaware of Nash's Instagram photos but that criticism of the governor and her nominees to ODFW is nonetheless off the mark.

"Gov. Brown has always kept balance and diverse experiences and backgrounds at the fore of her considerations of any board or commission in Oregon, as well as representing all regions from across the state," Kondayen says. "Her appointments this round are a continuation of that track record."

At issue are a specific conflict over the reintroduction of wolves into Oregon and, more generally, the question of whether hunters' and ranchers' desire to benefit from public lands should outweigh the wishes of Oregonians who favor the preservation of the state's natural areas for wildlife habitat and recreational use.

Conservation groups say Brown has consistently let them down. They point to her 2016 support for removing endangered species protections for wolves and her 2015 vote to begin the process of selling the Elliott State Forest (after enormous pressure from environmentalists, that sale was later canceled).

"We have this state government led by Democrats, and yet there's the perception we can't have an aggressive environmental agenda," says Quinn Read, Northwest program director of Defenders of Wildlife. "Oregon has a historical reputation for strength on environmental issues that isn't backed up by what's actually happening."

Read and her allies are not naïve. They know Brown's agenda includes passing billions of dollars in new corporate taxes and a carbon tax bill that has languished in Salem for 12 years. To convince moderate and rural Democrats they should support those policies, Brown may need to compromise in other areas.

But advocates for wildlife say the governor is trading away their interests—and with Democratic supermajorities in both chambers, she shouldn't have to.
"I think there's this idea that Oregon only has appetite for so much progress in terms of environmental policy," Read says. "Wildlife issues fall to the bottom and are used as political trading stock. We are a constituency that frequently gets rolled."

The ODFW's strategic plan says the agency's responsibility is "to manage and protect all the state's fish and wildlife—both game and nongame."
Conservation groups say, however, that the agency has long been captive to a board that puts the interests of ranchers, hunters and commercial fishermen first.

In 1999, the agency first reported a wolf had taken up residence in Oregon. Although the state established a system of compensation for animals that wolves killed, ranchers opposed the reintroduction, as did elk and deer hunters.

By 2015, state figures show, there were more than 100 wolves in Oregon. That year, ODFW moved to take the wolf off the state's endangered species list.

Conservation groups opposed that move, but lawmakers blocked their access to litigation with a bill passed in the 2016 short legislative session.

In a statement upon signing that bill, Brown tried to walk a knife's edge. "I support wolves," Brown said. "I also recognize challenges arise in rural landscapes where wolves exist. Minimizing divisions between well-meaning Oregonians and providing the social space for wolves demands compromise and collaboration."

The conservation groups say Brown pledged a pending wolf-management plan would reflect science and the public's interest rather than emotion and private financial interests. The governor arranged a series of facilitated meetings between wolf defenders and foes.

But on April 15, ODFW released a draft plan that conservation groups say sets the table for the recreational hunting of wolves. Although there are now only about 130 wolves in the state, the document anticipates what the agency calls "controlled takes," which the conservation groups say foreshadow recreational hunting of wolves.

The next day, Brown nominated five new ODFW Commission members, three of whom conservation groups panned.

Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild, says those nominations came after conservation groups urged the governor's staff to select nominees with scientific backgrounds.

"They knew appointing James Nash is a giant middle finger to the conservation community," Pedery says. "It's like putting Donald Trump Jr. on an electoral reform commission."

Other appointees to which the groups objected were Robert Spelbrink, a retired commercial fisherman from Siletz, and Mark Labhart, a retired Oregon Department of Forestry official and Tillamook County commissioner. Labhart signed onto a lawsuit filed by Linn County that would compel the state to maximize logging, a disaster for fish and wildlife habitat.

"This is a guy who, if he's confirmed as a member of the ODFW Commission, is supposed to be advocating for salmon," Pedery says. "That's a joke."

Labhart tells WW he intends to listen carefully to all parties. The other two appointees did not respond to requests for comment.

Pedery says conservation groups feel as if Brown cozied up to them to ensure their support for her re-election campaign last year against Republican Knute Buehler. Pedery says it now appears Brown's claim to be interested in preserving wolves was a sham.

"When she needs us, the governor whispers sweet nothings into our ears," Pedery says, "but when the spotlight goes away, she ignores us."

Kondayen denies that. She says Brown has remained consistent throughout her dealings with conservation groups.

"The idea that Gov. Brown has changed course on this topic is not in line with her track record," Kondayen says.

The Senate Rules Committee will consider Brown's nominations May 8.

Correction: This story incorrectly stated that Gov. Kate Brown voted to sell the  Elliott State Forest in 2017. In fact, she voted in 2015 to begin the process of selling the Elliott State Forest. WW regrets the error.

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