Not until he started writing bills affecting them, state Sen. Dan Hughes says, did Nebraska Game and Parks Commission officials pay more heed to landowners suffering crop damage from game animals.
The Venango farmer admitted his strategy Thursday as his Natural Resources Committee held public hearings on two bills he intends to beef up agricultural and western Nebraska influence on the commission.
“The state is making millions of dollars off hunting and fishing,” Hughes, who chairs the committee, told his fellow senators on the panel.
But when farmers and ranchers ask Game and Parks to act to thin game herds, “their attitude is, ‘Yeah, they’ll move on tomorrow, too bad,’” he said.
“That’s the attitude. And I’m sick of it.”
Hughes’ Legislative Bill 859 would tweak legal language requiring at least three of the nine commissioners to have an agricultural background.
Instead of saying they must be “actually engaged in agricultural pursuits,” LB 859 would say they must be “actually engaged in farming or livestock production.”
Meanwhile, LB 860 would abolish separate Game and Parks districts for Douglas and Lancaster counties in redividing the eight districts (one commissioner serves at-large) by geography, not population.
Six of the redrawn districts would cover the western three-fourths of Nebraska, with Lincoln and Keith counties joined by seven surrounding counties in District 5.
In introducing both bills to his committee, Hughes said he didn’t launch them to target any current Game and Parks board member.
But “just looking at Game and Parks, it’s wildlife and parks, Nowhere does it say ‘people,” he said. LB 860 aims “to get better representation in the west.”
Both of Hughes’ bills won backing from the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts, representing the state’s 23 natural resources districts.
The Nebraska Cattlemen, Nebraska Farm Bureau and John Ross, a farmer from Bancroft in northeast Nebraska, also supported LB 859 in person or by letter.
Ross said he has owned his land since 1971, but deer have been present there since the early 1960s and steadily grew in numbers.
At one point, “I had 50 to 60 deer on 300 acres,” he told the committee. “I was losing a lot of crop.”
Though Game and Parks took some measures over the years to encourage deer hunting, Ross said, “too much attention was given to special-interest groups” whose members prefer hunting deer with antlers.
Staff members’ “response was ‘Find some hunters who will shoot some does,’” he said. “And I could not find any.”
Current Game and Parks board members spoke against LB 859 and LB 860, as well as lobbyists for the Nebraska Sportsmen’s Foundation and Friends of Nebraska Parks.
They questioned whether Hughes’ “farming or livestock production” language in LB 859 was any less vague than “agricultural pursuits” in the current law.
All disputed the idea that Game and Parks board members don’t understand agriculture, while some opposed LB 860 as violating the principle of “one man, one vote.”
Scott Smathers, the sportsmen’s group’s executive director, called the idea that commission members don’t listen to landowners “coffee-shop hype and misinformation.”
Smathers specifically opposed abolishing the separate Douglas and Lancaster districts in LB 860, saying most members of his group come from urban counties.
“I represent the end users,” he said. “We are the ones who pay the bill, and we will always pay the bill.”
Most state parks likewise lie near Omaha and Lincoln, said Commissioner Doug Zingula of Sidney, who opposed LB 860 while fellow board member Pat Berggren of Broken Bow spoke against LB 859.
Both of them, along with Friends of Nebraska Parks lobbyist Walt Radcliffe, described packed schedules of meetings across the state they and other commissioners must attend.
“We’re trying to please the sportsman and the landowner,” Berggren said.
Though he opposed both bills, Radcliffe noted that Game and Parks members aren’t elected by voters — the target of “one man, one vote” court rulings — but are appointed by the governor.
Foes also pointed out an inconsistency in LB 860 that could put the status of current board Chairman Dan Kreitman of Wahoo in limbo.
New language in the bill would reassign Kreitman’s District 1 seat to the redrawn District 5, meaning he would represent the North Platte and Ogallala areas and southern Sandhills until 2024.
But LB 860 would leave unchanged another provision saying Game and Parks members “shall be bona fide residents of the district from which they were appointed.”
Forcing Kreitman to resign would be a tragic side effect if LB 860 passed, said Stan Patzel, retired manager of Lincoln’s former Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant.
He said Kreitman, who owns a ranch near Chadron, also owns farms in southeast and central Nebraska and has given thousands of dollars to conservation groups.
“As a commissioner, he’s checked all the boxes we need for a commissioner,” Patzel said.