The way James Nash recalls it, a bull hippopotamus charged at him out of the Tanzanian brush. It nearly killed him — he fired the last shot with his gun barrel touching it.
He killed the animal in self defense, Nash said, and supplied the meat to Maasai families near the Selous Game Reserve. He skinned a bit of the hide to make a pair of boots for his father. The money from his hunting trip aided the fight against poaching.
That’s not the image environmental advocates saw when they looked up Nash’s Instagram account. They saw him standing above a dead animal, its head propped on a rock and its mouth pried open, along with a caption from Nash about having its skull shipped to him.
After Gov. Kate Brown nominated Nash for the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, environmental groups captured the social media images and shared them with reporters. They singled out Nash and his trophy hunting in a letter to the governor, putting him in a spotlight of controversy that included sparring opinion pieces about his qualifications.
The images became a kind of conservationist Rorschach: Either Nash's hunting of big game was incompatible with governing the state's wildlife, or he represents the fading ideal of the Teddy Roosevelt hunter conservationist.
“You won’t have to look hard to find evidence to dispute claims of my incompetence as an ecologist, if you try,” Nash said last week in an email to OPB.
The debate apparently proved too controversial for the Oregon Senate’s majority Democrats, though. They pulled Nash from the list of five fish and wildlife commission nominees under consideration Wednesday at a Senate Rules Committee hearing.
Now that Nash’s name has been spiked, those environmental groups say his big-game hunting was never the real issue. The real issue, they say, is that Gov. Brown had a rare opportunity to change the culture at the top of her fish and wildlife agency and instead chose not to.
“It was easy for everyone to focus on Nash because of the nature of those photos and how they captured public outrage,” said Quinn Read, Northwest Director for Defenders of Wildlife. “But to focus on him is to miss the larger point, and that is that Governor Brown put forth a slate of commissioners that are going to let industry direct fish and wildlife policy.”
A big game hunter such as Nash would not have been a foreign concept for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Since its beginnings, the agency has been built on hunting and fishing, pulling almost all of its revenue from sales of hunting and fishing licenses or taxes on ammunition and fishing gear. Some of the agency's own biologists over the years have taken their own hunting trips to Africa.
But now, Oregon’s demographics are shifting. Fewer people are hunting and fishing, and the agency can’t bring in enough money to support its increasingly taxing mission.
As global reports cite ongoing mass extinction, Oregon has hundreds of sensitive non-game species with no stable funding source for conservation. State biologists have expressed worries that some populations could go extinct within Oregon's borders before ODFW realizes they're gone.
The sport hunting and fishing community sees itself shouldering more of the agency’s financial burden while seeing less and less in return. Landowners in rural Oregon say they’re scapegoated for large-scale population declines. Wildlife advocates say the fish and wildlife commission repeatedly kowtows to political pressure because seat appointments have been used as trading stock.
All of this underlies the fight environmental advocates have now made public over the five open seats on the fish and wildlife commission, which makes decisions on the state’s most hotly debated wildlife issues: from endangered species listings to gill netting and the Oregon wolf management plan.
Those advocates say they’d been working with the governor's office to find candidates of color and those who represent new ideas for wildlife conservation, but that they didn’t see it in Brown’s choices.
“So what have we been doing here in Oregon for the last few decades?” said Arran Robertson of Oregon Wild. “What are Governor Brown and the Senate doing, putting representatives from the logging, livestock and commercial fishing industries on the committee that manages the state's wildlife?”
Kate Kondayen, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in a statement sent Friday that Brown’s appointments were designed to “keep a balance of diverse experiences and backgrounds to ensure the concerns of all Oregonians, urban and rural, are reflected in the state’s work.”
Kondayen cited the challenge of filling a commission with requirements for specific geographic representation and subject matter expertise.
“This commission governs an agency that has wide responsibilities, and while the agency does have notable deliverables coming up, the governor expects the Commission to carry forward on her vision for the agency,” Kondayen said, noting that Brown has called for the agency to reestablish its defunct habitat and conservation division. “These nominations are a strong commitment to fulfilling the Department’s mission to protect and serve all wildlife, not just game species.”
The resumes of Brown’s selections include some of these varied experiences — Nash included. The former U.S. Marine makes his living off hunting, fishing and ranching and has family ties to the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, where his father served on the organization’s wolf committee. He also worked on a massive Wallowa River restoration and served on a state task force charged with finding ODFW revenue sources beyond hunting and fishing dollars.
“The contribution in habitat to wildlife made by Oregon's private landowners in tremendously valuable,” Nash said in his email exchange with OPB. “As a fifth-generation rancher, I've learned valuable lessons about resilience and sustainability. I know that if the wildlife is living on your property that you are managing it well.”
Mark Labhart is another commission nominee that environmental groups object to based on his background working in forestry and his own endorsement from the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.
“I’m not coming in with any agenda on any item,” Labhart said. “I’m going to hopefully be the person in the middle trying to look at both sides and draw conclusions based on the information.”
Labhart also chaired the committee seeking alternative revenue for ODFW. A resulting bill from that work, pending in the state legislature, would allocate $17 million in new funds for the agency's conservation efforts.