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Can two nominees for CPW commission who worked as animal advocates also represent hunters?

Jessica Beaulieu and Gary Skiba head to confirmation without key committee recommendations
Pronghorn run along a county road west of Craig. Deep, hard packed snow and high snowdrifts make it difficult for pronghorn to travel in search of food. Heavy winter losses in the pronghorn, elk and deer herds in northwest Colorado led state wildlife officials to reduce the number of hunting licenses available in the 2023-24 seasons in certain game units. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife photo)

Two of three people nominated by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission in July will head to the state Senate for confirmation this week without favorable recommendations from a critical committee.

The state Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 29 declined favorable recommendations for Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commissioners Gary Skiba and Jessica Beaulieu, with nay votes from senators who expressed concern over the agency’s direction and the experience of the two commissioners. The Colorado Senate is scheduled to discuss the nominees Friday.

Skiba represents hunters and anglers and Beaulieu represents outdoor recreation and parks.

The hearing highlighted growing concerns in Colorado over “ballot box biology” with voters wading into wildlife management and illustrated Western Slope angst over how recreation is represented on a board that must balance wildlife conservation with hunting, agricultural interests and state parks in Colorado.

State Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat from Avon who chairs the committee and cast the swing vote in the 3-4 decisions on Skiba and Beaulieu, said he was troubled by the experience of the commissioners and their ability to represent hunters and anglers and the state’s parks.

“I am concerned about the direction of CPW right now,” Roberts said after questioning the appointees at the committee hearing, describing the wolf reintroduction process in his district as “incredibly damaging” to his constituents and the Western Slope.

In this photo provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, wildlife officials release five gray wolves onto public land in Grand County on Dec. 18. The wolves were released to kick off a voter-approved reintroduction program that was embraced in the state's mostly Democratic urban corridor but staunchly opposed in conservative rural areas where ranchers worry about attacks on livestock. (Colorado Natural Resources via AP)

The committee did not object to Jack Murphy, a longtime Colorado resident who teaches animal control officers and leads the Urban Wildlife Rescue, which rescues orphaned animals and helps urban residents get rid of pest animals without killing them. He serves on the 11-member CPW commission as a representative for outdoor recreation and parks. All three have been serving on the volunteer commission since July.

Skiba told the committee he has been a lifelong hunter and angler. He spent 23 years as a wildlife biologist with what was then the Colorado Division of Wildlife with a focus on endangered and threatened animals. He works with the San Juan Citizens Alliance as the wildlife program manager for the Durango environmental group and served on the Stakeholders Advisory Group that advised CPW on wolf reintroduction.

Beaulieu has degrees in wildlife ecology and conservation and an environmental law degree. The attorney who recently has represented parents accused of abuse or neglect also manages the University of Denver’s Animal Law Program.

DU’s Animal Law Program was created in 2021 as the only program of its type in the Rocky Mountains. It is anchored in the idea that law does not adequately protect animals and attorneys need better training to protect animals using new research that challenges assumptions around the relationship between people and animals.

“Despite a growing body of work documenting the sentience, cognition and autonomy of animals, non-humans are routinely killed or harmed unnecessarily,” reads the program’s website.

Hunters are critical of Beaulieu and Skiba, saying their history as animal advocates makes them ill-suited to represent hunter interests. Outfitting groups urged the senate committee to reject all three of the appointees.

Jessica Beaulieu, an environmental law attorney who manages the University of Denver’s Animal Law Program, was appointed by Gov. Jared Polis to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission in July 2023. (Handout)

The Teller County commissioners on Feb. 24 sent a letter to all Colorado senators, urging them to reject the three appointees, saying “we are concerned with the direction of wildlife management in the state of Colorado, more specifically anti-hunting attacks on our rich sporting traditions.” The commissioners said the three appointees “represent a stark conflict of interest with CPW’s mission to provide recreational opportunities for Colorado sportspersons.” Grand County commissioners also sent a letter to Colorado senators on March 1, saying the three appointees “were selected to pursue an animal rights, anti-hunting agenda – not as advocates for outdoor recreation or Colorado parks.”

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation last year encouraged its members to protest the three, saying Polis’ appointments “show hunters and anglers don’t matter.”

Were these members recruited to apply?

Sen. Perry Will, a Republican from New Castle who served more than 40 years as a state wildlife officer, asked the three appointees many questions, saying “I bleed the Division of Wildlife and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.”

He asked if the three believed in the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which has defined wildlife management for more than 120 years with an emphasis on science-based strategies and using hunters to sustain healthy animal populations. All three appointees expressed support for the model.

“I will defend and promote the use of hunting and angling as appropriate tools for wildlife management,” Skiba said.

Gary Skiba, the wildlife program manager for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, was appointed by Gov. Jared Polis to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission in July 2023. (Handout)

Roberts asked Beaulieu how many state parks she visited before she was appointed to the commission. She named six Front Range parks and said she had never purchased an annual state parks pass until the new Keep Colorado Wild Pass debuted this year as part of her car registration.

He read the statutory requirements for commissioners who represent parks and outdoor recreation, which include “knowledge and experience” in outdoor business, elected office, youth outdoor education, wildlife biology, water use, land conservation and diverse interests in outdoor recreation. He asked each of the appointees how they thought they met those requirements.

Beaulieu said she engaged in outdoor recreation and has an educational background in wildlife ecology. Murphy said he’s been visiting Colorado parks for 54 years.

Roberts probed the appointees over their thoughts about “ballot box biology,” where voters weigh in on wildlife management, like the 2020 vote that narrowly approved wolf reintroduction in Colorado after CPW commissioners had twice rejected similar wolf proposals.

“As a CPW commissioner now … do you think it’s OK for the CPW commission to be ignored when they make decisions about wildlife?” Roberts asked Skiba, who has long advocated for wolves in Colorado.

The impetus behind the 2020 ballot issue was feeling that wildlife commissioners “were ignoring the public sentiment,” Skiba said.

Roberts asked if Skiba would be OK with a voter campaign to reverse a commission decision?

“I am trying to tread very carefully,” Skiba said. “I do not feel that the commission regularly makes decisions based solely on science. We always make decisions that are influenced by social and economic concerns as well. There are very few wildlife management issues that I’ve ever seen that are based solely on the science. We as a commission … have melded the social and economic issues into decisions.”

Roberts asked CPW director Jeff Davis how many people applied for the commissioner positions, which Davis said he did not know. Roberts asked each of the appointees how they learned about the application process and they answered that they had discovered the openings themselves.

“There’s been allegations that these folks were asked to apply because they fit a certain ideology rather than being genuinely interested in serving,” Roberts told The Colorado Sun the day after the committee confirmation hearing. “For example, it’s curious that someone who has never owned a parks pass and never visited any parks other than those close to Denver would have a passion for state parks usage.”

Will asked the appointees about Proposition 91, which could ask voters in November to ban mountain lion hunting if proponents secure more than 124,000 signatures by Aug. 5 to make the ballot.

Murphy said the ballot box “is the wrong way to manage wildlife.” Beaulieu said she preferred legislative efforts over ballot initiatives when it comes to wildlife. Skiba said there was a difference between the mountain lion proposal and wolf reintroduction, saying Proposition 91 is “taking a tool away from” CPW.

Will, after grilling the appointees, said he liked the three commissioners, “but I love CPW and I love sportspersons.”

“My vote will be for the greater good of sportspersons,” said Will, criticizing ballot initiatives that seek to replace decisions by wildlife experts. “We are doing this all the wrong way and we are looking to you as commissioners to do it the right way … and stick to your guns in our traditional ways and our ways of life and our time-honored traditions because that is huge in this agency. I know people want to move away from the hook-and-bullet club … but CPW is the hook-and-bullet club.”

State Sen. Kevin Priola from Henderson, who recently switched from Republican to Democrat, voted in support of the appointees.

“This is for Colorado Parks and Wildlife,” Priola said. “It’s not for the Colorado hunting organization. I think the focus needs to be on not just hunting … but it also needs to be focused on my kids and grandkids so there is something there for them to enjoy 50 and 100 years from now.”

Emerald Mountain, part of a 2007 land swap with the State Land Board, has yielded ore than two dozen trails above Steamboat Springs. Wildlife advocates are concerned that a proposed 49 miles of new trails on nearby Rabbit Ears Pass may impact habitat. (Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun file)

It’s not just hunting groups that had issues with newest members of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission.

The Colorado Mountain Bike Coalition, representing 21 cycling groups in the state, sent a letter to committee members expressing concern that Beaulieu, Murphy and Skiba “may not possess the necessary qualifications … and the necessary experience to effectively represent the interests of all recreational users.”

The coalition said the three appointees lack experience in recreational-related fields.

“It is essential for commissioners to have a working knowledge of issues related to recreation when they are appointed,” reads the coalition’s letter. “We believe that this standard is crucial right now for CPW, considering the role the commission plays in managing rapidly expanding recreational demands throughout the state.”

Scott Jones, the executive director of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, recalls when the Colorado Division of Wildlife merged with State Parks in 2011, blending two 14-member commissions into a single commission made up of 11 volunteer citizens appointed by the governor. Jones said representatives of the state’s then nascent outdoor recreation industry fought to make sure recreational interests were represented on the new board. (The Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission has three members who represent hunters and anglers and three members representing outdoor recreation and parks.)

“We worked hard during the merger to make sure commissioners had demonstrated experience in recreation. It’s sad we have to bring that up again,” Jones said. “These are recreational folks who have no recreational background. We need leadership and these folks do not have it. Colorado has dozens and dozens and dozens of people who are highly qualified for those positions and could hit the ground running and we could use that right now.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.

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