Hunters and Anglers in Kentucky are raising red flags about a bill that could have major implications for state’s fish and game populations. Opponents of Senate Bill 3 (SB3) say the measure gives agricultural interests an unprecedented level of control over the future of wildlife management in the Bluegrass State. As of this writing, SB3 has passed the Kentucky Senate and is awaiting vote in the House of Representatives.

If it passes the House, the bill will transfer oversight of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) from the state’s Tourism Cabinet to the Department of Agriculture, hunters at forefront of the opposition tell Field & Stream. That means that Kentucky’s Agricultural Commissioner will suddenly be tasked with appointing new wildlife commissioners—a job that’s long been handled by the Governor with significant input from sportsmen’s groups. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Jason Howell, a Republican from Murray who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Hunters Speak Out

During a hearing on March 12, Howell and other Republicans moved the bill forward despite vocal opposition from an array of sportsmen’s groups like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA), Safari Club International (SCI), the Sportsmen’s Alliance, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, and the League of Kentucky Sportsmen. At the meeting, Howell said his bill has already garnered support from KDFWR Commissioner Rich Storm, as well as Jonathon Shell, Kentucky’s Agricultural Commissioner.

Larry Richards is one of several hunters that showed up at the hearing to oppose Howell’s bill. He’s the Legislative Affairs Committee Chairman for SCI’s Kentuckiana Chapter, a group that’s leading the charge to kill SB3. “These senators want to move the KDFWR out from under the Governor and into Agriculture because they know they can control the Ag Commissioner,” Richards tells F&S. “But Ag and Wildlife are like oil and water. They don’t mix.”

Speaking at the hearing, Richards said the Kentucky Senate is playing a dangerous game of politics with the state’s fish and game agency—and that SB3 would transform the KDFWR in a way that favors big agriculture over everyday hunters.

The Commission

Kentucky has nine separate hunting districts and each district has its own wildlife commissioner. These commissioners make up a voting body that sets hunting and fishing regulations in the Commonwealth. And they have sole authority to hire or fire the lead figurehead at KDFWR, a position currently held by Commissioner Rich Storm.

Under current laws, new commissioners are recommended to the Governor by a coalition of hunting and angling groups. Once appointed by the Governor, nominated commissioners must be approved by the Senate. But if SB3 passes the House, the head of Kentucky’s agriculture department will be able to choose and appoint new wildlife commissioners without any Senate approval.

Retired Army Colonel Mike Abell leads the Kentucky Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Like Richards, he’s vehemently opposed to SB3’s proposed transfer of KDFWR from tourism to ag. He says the Governor’s office has a 70-year track record of appointing commissioners who align with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

“As sportsmen, we’ve only asked the Senate not to confirm one nominee in the last decade,” he says. “But this Senate has canned three of the best nominees we’ve ever had, all of whom were recommended to Gov. (Andy) Beshears by local sportsmen.”

Five of Kentucky’s nine commission districts are currently sitting vacant, Abell says, and all five nominees to run those districts are hung up in the Senate. “There’s an emergency clause on this bill that says the current five appointees that the governor has selected—that we vetted and nominated—will be made null and void if SB3 passes the House and becomes law,” Abell says. “Then the Commissioner of Agriculture will be able to go back and retroactively reappoint his own nominees.”

Oil and Water

As it’s currently structured, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture has little to no oversight over wildlife management policy in that state. When it comes to the state’s deer herds, the agency is only in charge of monitoring captive deer farms, some of which of are high-fence operations that cater to paying hunters. As opponents of SB3 are quick to point out, no other state in the country has ever placed control of its wildlife agency in the hands of its agricultural department.

Both Richards and Abell worry that the Department of Agriculture’s most powerful lobbying force—the Kentucky Farm Bureau—would gain undue influence over KDFWR’s season setting and bag limit policies if SB3 were to become law.

“Kentucky Farm Bureau’s president said in his first interview after he got elected that the Farm Bureau is the voice of agriculture in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and no one disagrees with that,” Abell says. “Their policy booklet and their website list deer, elk, turkey, and bears as pests.

At the policy level, agriculture wants to reduce wildlife populations in order to protect livestock, reduce crop damage, and to reduce the number of deer and automobile collisions. Under SB3, all they’d have to do to reduce wildlife numbers is appoint commissioners who are more prone to increase seasons and bag limits.”

Today, Kentuckians enjoy some of the best whitetail deer and wild turkey hunting in the country. And the state boasts huntable populations of black bear and reintroduced Rocky Mountain elk. But it hasn’t always been that way.

“I remember when my uncle took a forky buck with his recurve and people from four or five farms around showed up just to look at it,” Abell says. “That was 1979, and we didn’t have any deer or turkey. It would only take 8 to 10 years of bad wildlife management decisions to go right back to that. Then we’d be apologizing to our kids and grandkids because we hunted all day and didn’t see a single deer.”

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Now that SB3 has passed the Senate, Abell and Richards are taking their fight to the House of Representatives. “We sent well over 10,000 opposition letters to the Senate, and now we’re sending hundreds to the House,” he says. “If we can slow it down long enough, we can kill this thing.”

If you’d like to contact the House of Representatives on behalf of hunters and anglers, you can do so here and here.