Rim Country is blessed with some of the most spectacular landscapes and abundance of wildlife found throughout Arizona. It’s no wonder so many avid outdoor recreationists live here. Hiking, birding, wildlife watching, fishing, camping, exploring and hunting all contribute to our quality of life in Rim Country.
My passion for the outdoors was one of the major reasons I applied for a position on the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. I have to admit that during my orientation meetings, shortly after being appointed, I was overwhelmed by the long list of activities and functions for which the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) is responsible.
I’m equally impressed by the dedicated people. One of the most underappreciated areas I learned about is the wildlife knowledge and science-driven, decision-making processes that are in place. AZGFD and the Commission are guided by the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a key tenet of which is seeking public involvement in wildlife management.
The recent meetings throughout the state and in Payson about the upcoming hunt regulations are an example of the Department’s public involvement efforts. While each person has input, AZGFD and the Commission have a duty to listen to comments and make decisions for the public at large, not only the most vociferous. Seldom are voices unanimous on an issue, and choices have to be made that might be unpopular to some.
During the Payson meeting, a few resident hunters expressed concerns regarding the Department’s decision 10 years ago to manage game units to provide a varied hunting experience based on research of the broad hunting community. The survey overwhelmingly showed that Arizona hunters wanted an opportunity to hunt more often at the expense of harvesting a more mature animal. In addition, there were a significant number of hunters and professional hunting guides who prefer to specialize in hunting mature elk and deer in the 4- to 5-year-old age class. The Commission chose to serve hunters who favored age over opportunity.
AZGFD established six “alternative hunt units,” one in each region throughout the state. In Rim Country, that unit is Game Management Unit 23. Other units were identified as “opportunity hunt units,” which in Rim Country is GMU 22. The data shows that the elk herd in GMU 23 is more mature than in GMU 22. This is the direct result of less hunting pressure and fewer permit-tags allocated for the managed hunt units. The only way to have large, mature animals is with reduced harvest.
To ensure proper herd management, AZGFD conducts aerial surveys, as well as on-the-ground observations by local wildlife managers for each GMU across the state. These numbers are then entered into a database to determine the number of permit-tags to be distributed and balanced among rifle, archery, muzzleloader and youth hunts. The hunt guidelines, which consist of the number of hunts and permit-tags allocated, are then developed and submitted to the Commission for approval.
Given the diversity of expectations for hunting in Rim Country’s premier hunting units, it’s clear that not everyone is going to be happy with whatever plan is implemented. The expectations range from professional hunting guides who provide hunting services to in-state and out-of-state hunters, with the expectation of harvesting a mature, age-class elk, to the recreational hunters who enjoy a few days of hunting each year with the hope of harvesting an elk.
The AZGFD Conserve and Protect program is foremost in the decision-making process. There is no disagreement that the size of the elk herd in GMUs 22 and 23 is plentiful. The disagreement is with the quality (antler size) of elk in GMU 22. This fact is not in dispute: With more available permit-tags and hunters in the field, the number of elk harvested will increase, and the average age and antler size of elk harvested will be lower.
At the meeting in Payson, it was suggested that modern firearms and bows/crossbows shoot more accurately at long range and are not really fair chase. While it’s true these tools are improved, it’s important to point out this technology does not make an inexperienced shooter more accurate. Just because the equipment can increase the distance, it doesn’t raise the skill level of the hunter. It’s the hunter who ultimately has to have the skill to make a safe, ethical, legal and lethal shot. Regardless of the species being hunted, where to hunt and how to hunt comes down to the hunter’s ability.
AZGFD conserves and protects more than 800 species of wildlife for all Arizonans. The first tenet of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation states that all wildlife is held in the public trust, and AZGFD is charged with ensuring wildlife is effectively managed and not impacted by funding or special interest groups. Although AZGFD is a state government agency, it receives no tax dollars from the Arizona State General Fund. The Department is primarily funded by discretionary spending by users. Its revenue sources include hunting and fishing license sales, off-highway vehicle (OHV) and boat permits, PointGuard, conservation packages, special license sales, donations and more.
It might sound odd that a state agency doesn’t accept tax dollars to operate, but the founders of the Department understood the need to keep wildlife conservation paramount in the decision-making process. For more information on these topics, visit the Department’s website at www.azgfd.gov.