The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission’s moves to eradicate wild hogs may have added fuel to a smoldering controversy in the Legislature over whether the commission should be transformed or even abolished.
The war on hogs began earlier this year after the Legislature approved a bill changing the legal status of wild pigs from a protected game species to a “nuisance” animal. The commission responded with a proclamation that legalizes multiple new means for killing hogs by landowners while prohibiting traditional hunting of them.
State Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, says the hunting ban — which includes forbidding use of dogs to chase hogs in most public hunting areas — was “absolutely not” what he had in mind when sponsoring the bill to change hogs’ legal status.
He and some other legislators, particularly in East Tennessee and along the Cumberland Plateau, say they have been swamped with more complaints on the proclamation than on any other subject.
The Tennessee Hunters Alliance, formed recently in large part because of unhappiness over the hog proclamation, has 450 members who have made financial donations and about 6,000 “supporters,” said Patrick Garrison, president of the organization and owner of Caryonah Hunting Lodge, located on about 2,000 acres near Crossville.
“We didn’t have a voice,” says Garrison, who characterizes the commission’s hog rules as “ridiculous.”
Garrison also says the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which is overseen by the commission, has overreacted to spreading of nails by vandals at Catoosa Wildlife Management Area near Crossville, apparently by persons unhappy with hog eradication efforts there. The area was closed to the public for a time as a result and TWRA has since launched an investigation that has included a raid on at least one home and interrogation of several persons including, Garrison says, himself.
Last week, Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. John Forgety, R-Athens, introduced a bill (SB2127) that declares the commission “is not authorized to promulgate any rule, regulation, or proclamation that regulates hunting wild hogs on private property.” Bell says that is a “first step” with further legislation likely to follow.
Critics say Bell’s bill would open the door to proliferation of hogs by landowners who want to encourage hunting, perhaps for a fee, to the detriment of native wildlife and farmers on neighboring properties.
The TWRA has embarked with commission approval on a program of trapping and killing wild hogs. So far this year, 224 hogs have been dispatched by agency officers as of Friday, according to Nat Johnson, TWRA assistant executive director.
That doesn’t count about 70 hogs killed last December by officers shooting hogs from helicopters in a pilot project of the Animal Control Services Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The bill changing hogs’ legal status was passed with little debate and broad support in the 2011 legislative session. Citing estimates that wild hogs have caused up to $1.5 billion in agricultural damage annually statewide, groups ranging from the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation to the Tennessee Wildlife Federation backed it.
At the same time, however, the commission had troubles on another legislative front. Under state law, every board and commission must be periodically approved by the Legislature — typically every four to eight years — or it will “sunset” and cease to exist.
The commission “sunset bill,” extending its life for another five years, was passed by the Senate but stalled in the House Government Operations Committee, chaired by Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City.
The commission thus stands to be terminated on July 1, 2012, unless the bill is approved before then.
Cobb says commission has shown itself “a little bit arrogant and unresponsive” to legislators and their constituents and he has accumulated a pile of complaints “two or three inches thick.” Those will be the focus of hearings on the commission — probably in February — before a vote on the “sunset bill,” he said
The hearing could result in recommendations that the commission be changed, Cobb said, and one option would be to “just do away with the commission altogether” and instead have the governor appoint a commissioner of wildlife resources, who would then oversee the TWRA staff. Cobb says the TWRA has generally done a good job and generates fewer complaints than the commission.
As things stand now, Cobb said, membership on the 13-member commission is a “political gift” from the governor or speakers of the House and Senate, who collectively control appointments. He added that some TWRC members seem to view hunters and fishermen with disdain — “like they go out and buy a hunting license to break the law.”
Garrison said his organization has another idea: election of commissioners by vote of licensed hunters and fishermen in geographic regions of the state.
The hog situation, Cobb said, may exemplify the commission being out of touch.
“There lot of legislators who thought that taking feral hog off (the list of protected animals) would mean being able to control the population and letting hunters hunt them,” he said. “Then they used that opportunity to put out a proclamation to stop hunting and for them to trap and kill them.”
The idea of having a governor-appointed commissioner in control of Tennessee’s fish and wildlife is anathema to Mike Butler, executive director of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation.
“The commission system is not broken! Period, end of story,” Butler said. “The whole reason the commission was set up and the agency created in 1949 by our organization was to prevent politics from driving wildlife management decisions. You can’t eliminate it, but at least with a broad-based commission, you can significantly limit it.”
As for letting license-holders elect commissioner, Butler said that would probably be unconstitutional by depriving other citizens of a voice in oversight of wildlife.
Butler strongly supports the commission’s move on hogs, saying that continuing the hunting of the animals as a sport provides an incentive for increasing their numbers — in some cases by transporting hogs into new areas and releasing them illegally.
“The commission has tried to show leadership on the hog issue at the request of the Legislature,” he said and has been unfairly targeted as a result.
William Brown of Signal Mountain, the current chairman of the commission, echoes Butler’s views. He said the commission has been in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation with pressure from farmers to eradicate hogs and now from hog hunters who have “lambasted” him at meetings.
Brown hopes the Legislature next year will follow North Carolina’s lead and create a $5,000 per animal fine for releasing hogs into the wild, saying a $50 fine is no deterrent.
“This is the right step by the commission. It’s not a vendetta against hog-dog hunters or anyone else,” he said.
And Brown said he’s not too worried about the commission being abolished.
“I don’t think the Legislature, as a whole, is dissatisfied with the commission. It’s just a few people who, for whatever reason, are upset,” he said.Brown said TWRA’s executive director has reviewed complaints about the commission and “it is my understanding that none of those complaints are of any significance.”
One complaint, he said, was that “all the agency’s vehicles had new tires on them all the time.
“What can you say about that? I don’t go around looking at tires all the time … and the Legislature doesn’t give us a nickel,” he said, noting the cost of TWRA operations are largely covered by the sale of hunting and fishing license fees.