Juneau--The House of Representatives voted Friday to add a new set of duties for the commissioner of Fish and Game and the Boards of Game and Fisheries.
By a unanimous vote, the House approved House Bill 75, which adds language to state law giving the boards and the commissioner the added responsibility "to promote fishing, hunting and trapping and preserve the heritage" of those activities.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks, now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Kelly said the added verbiage called for in his bill will help the state better respond to "attacks" by groups that seek to limit the activities that he called an important part of Alaska's identity.
"Hunting, fishing and trapping are under attack, mostly by Outsiders who presume to tell us who we are," he said.
Kelly mentioned in particular People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the organization's recent request to Gov. Frank Murkowski to ban king salmon fishing in Alaska.
Under the bill, the state could point to its law books to argue it is the responsibility of fish and game management officials to promote hunting, fishing and trapping, Kelly said.
"A decade ago, HB 75 would not have been necessary," he said. "I believe now it's relevant."
The move is not expected to bring significant practical changes to the operations of the fisheries and game boards or the commissioner, a position Murkowski recently selected former deputy commissioner McKie Campbell to fill.
Sarah Gilbertson, Fish and Game legislative liaison, testified when the bill was being considered in the House Resources Committee that the department already considers promotion of hunting, fishing and trapping part of its mission.
However, she said, defining that duty in law could free the department to take a public position on ballot initiatives involving fish and wildlife, something it doesn't do now. The proposed changes "aren't 100 percent necessary, but they provide a tool we believe could be useful," Gilbertson said.
The only concerns to the bill raised by legislators dealt with whether the added language would require the commissioner and boards to favor hunting, fishing and trapping over other activities, such as wildlife viewing and subsistence uses.
To that end, Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, expressed concern about the McNeil River bear sanctuary in his district and the "very lucrative" viewing business that it provides. There have been controversial proposals to allow bear hunting in the area.
A legal opinion by legislative attorney George Utermohle concluded that Kelly's bill would not cause the commissioner or fisheries and game boards to place a greater priority on hunting, fishing and trapping.
The bill would simply add another duty for the commissioner and boards to those already defined in law, not replace any of the existing duties, the opinion stated.
"Thus, it is my conclusion that (the bill) does not establish a priority or even a preference for hunting, fishing and trapping over other consumptive or non-consumptive uses of fish and game," Utermohle wrote.
Reporter Daniel Rice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 463-4893.