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Arizona's Game and Fish Department is hosting a hunting contest that includes rabbits, which technically aren't "fur-bearers," according to the state's legal code.
Arizona's Game and Fish Department is hosting a hunting contest that includes rabbits, which technically aren't "fur-bearers," according to the state's legal code.
Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

Arizona Game and Fish Promotes Its Own Hunting Contest While Banning Others

Last week, Arizona banned wildlife hunting contests that reward hunters for killing the most prey. Animal activists celebrated as contest participants grumbled. The new rule had been sought for months by the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

As recently as late August, though, the AZGFD has used its website and social media to actively promote a type of hunting contest of its own. And that has both hunters and activists up in arms.

“Small game is big fun,” reads a quote on the agency’s website promoting the Arizona Small Game Challenge on August 27. The AZGFD also used Facebook and Twitter to promote the challenge, which is set to take place over the next year.

Technically, the contest is legal, even under the state’s new restrictions. That’s because it deals with small game — such as doves, grouse and rabbits — which are not identified as part of the new rule. Though the ban does explicitly cover competitions to kill “predatory animals and fur-bearing animals,” rabbits aren’t listed as fur-bearers under the state’s code.

But even though the Small Game Challenge squeaks past the state’s rules, it has all the trappings of the hunting contests Arizona just banned, including an entry fee, required registration, and engraved plaques as prizes.

That has both hunters and activists fuming — hunters, because they feel the agency is being hypocritical by organizing its own contest while banning others, and activists, because they’d hoped for a broader rule that would protect all wildlife.

“So the Arizona Game and Fish Department can put on a contest but we can’t?” reads a public Facebook post by Call-in the Country, a group that posts hunting videos and has hosted a competition called the Santa Slay. “What a spit in the face of all predator hunters to hold a contest right after telling us they banned coyote contests, because they didn’t follow the North American Model.”

The North American Model refers to a set of ethical guidelines for hunters, which activists have used as part of their argument to ban wildlife hunting contests over the last year.

Activists, too, are now doubting whether the agency will follow those ethical guidelines.

“We took a stand that it’s wrong to gamify and commercialize killing animals for fun and for money, and this challenge is, in spirit, exactly the same thing,” said Lain Kahlstrom, a volunteer for the advocacy group Animal Wellness Action.

Tina Meredith, the Arizona director of Animal Wellness Action, put it more bluntly.

“I always thought they were conserving wildlife for the benefit of wildlife,” she said. “To see they created a small game challenge so for $25 you can send in a picture of your pile of dead birds for a plaque? It’s so outside of that.”

Larisa Harding, small game program manager of AZGFD, argued that the challenge is different than predator-hunting contests. For example, she told Phoenix New Times, the Small Game Challenge is subject to hunting bag limits, encourages "hunting new species" instead of "taking as many animals as possible," and its entry fees are donated to small game habitat and management projects.

But those distinctions haven't stopped hunters from lashing out in frustration at the AZGFD.

Kevin Higashi, who didn’t respond to a Facebook message, wrote in a comment that that he emailed the contest's program manager and a chairman of AZGFD. He also said he’d be canceling his magazine subscription and “dumping my sportsman license plate.”

“It’s so difficult to support AZGFD anymore,” he wrote.

On the activist side, Meredith and Kahlstrom haven’t taken any action in response, but they say they’re concerned about the ban’s enforcement, which is AZGFD’s responsibility.

“To know that we have to depend on them to enforce the rule about contests while they invite hunters to participate in the challenge is really disappointing,” Kahlstrom said.

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