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How did a Durango wildlife biologist end up in Colorado senators’ crosshairs?

Facing rejection by state Senate, Gary Skiba resigned from CPW Commission
Gary Skiba with Raven, his Labrador retriever on Thursday at Pastorius Reservoir. (Jerry McBride/ Durango Herald)

“I’m pissed,” said Gary Skiba with an emphatic chuckle.

That’s how the wildlife biologist started a conversation on the derailed confirmation process of his appointment to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission by the Colorado Senate.

Gov. Jared Polis tapped the Durango resident to serve on the citizen board, which makes policy concerning state wildlife and park programs, last July. For about eight months, he represented sportspersons on the 11-person commission.

But he still had to be confirmed by the Senate, and his tenure came to an abrupt end March 7 when Skiba withdrew himself from consideration after the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee voted 4-3 not to support his appointment.

Skiba went into the Feb. 29 hearing with the awareness that there had been swirling opposition to his appointment stemming from his vocal support for wolf reintroduction in Colorado. He was unaware that the opposition had mushroomed into what Skiba later called “deeply disturbing lies.”

He and two other appointees faced rigorous questioning from senators. Skiba described interaction with Committee Chair Dylan Roberts, a former prosecutor, as “an interrogation, not a questioning.”

“I had the sense that I was gonna get questioned,” Skiba said. “… I didn't expect it to be as uncivil as it was.”

The biologist drew condemnation from senators for his support of Proposition 114, the ballot measure that instructed CPW to reintroduce wolves to the state, on the basis that it undermined CPW’s previous decisions not to pursue a reintroduction. Skiba argued that the voters did not usurp the authority of the commission, but that the commission had previously failed to listen to its constituents.

Commissioner Jessica Beaulieu, who also failed to secure a recommendation for her appointment, was confirmed by the Senate.

Skiba was guarded in his comments following his withdrawal. With a few weeks’ space, he has opened up about what went wrong and what, from his perspectives, hunters and anglers are losing with him no longer on the commission.

“I’m a hunter – I’m not going to vote against hunters,” Skiba said. The biologist says he is not a big game hunter, but regularly hunts waterfowl with his dog, Raven. (Jerry McBride/ Durango Herald)
‘I was stabbed in the back and there were deeply disturbing lies’

Skiba made a public comment at the March 14 CPW commission meeting. It was the first meeting since July that he attended as a member of the public rather than as a commissioner.

The comment was his first public airing of his side of the story.

“Since my appointment by the governor, multiple deeply disturbing lies have been told about me to rile up the hunting community,” he told his former colleagues.

Skiba is a wildlife biologist who spent 24 years at CPW (then known as the Division of Wildlife) and is now the wildlife program manager with San Juan Citizens Alliance. While he has not hunted big game in many years, Skiba says he regularly hunts waterfowl (and proudly shows off his cellphone background photo of his retriever, Raven, with her first duck).

He doesn’t live in a home adorned with trophy heads – but that doesn’t mean he was unqualified to represent hunters.

“I’m a hunter – I’m not going to vote against hunters,” he said, incredulous. “That’s stupid.”

That didn’t stop opponents from painting him as an “animal rights professional,” or worse, a “guru,” and claiming that he drafted Proposition 114 (he didn’t, he says).

A hunter’s advocacy group called Howl for Wildlife created an easy form with which residents could submit pre-crafted letters to their senators opposing the nomination of Skiba, and the two other appointees.

“To their credit, they did a great job,” he said. “It was very effective. … I didn't appreciate it, but it was.”

But that was not the worst of it. Skiba sat on the Stakeholders Advisory Group, a panel of state residents representing various interests during the process of crafting the wolf reintroduction plan last year. Unbeknown to him, seven of his former colleagues had submitted a letter to the committee opposing his nomination.

The letter addressed an alternative plan introduced by WildEarth Guardians for wolf management. Sentiment on the SAG was that the plan would undercut the CPW process.

“It caught most members of the SAG by surprise and was somewhat of a distraction for CPW staff,” the letter read. “It did not catch Gary Skiba by surprise because he had signed off as supporting this alternate plan which we found stunning.”

Skiba calls this claim a “total, complete fabrication.”

Emails reviewed by The Durango Herald show that Skiba declined an offer from WildEarth Guardians interim Conservation Director Greg Dyson to sign onto the alternative proposal.

The letter left him feeling stabbed in the back by people he thought of as colleagues, if not friends.

“I was shocked,” Skiba said.

Raven returns the training dummy to her owner, Gary Skiba, on Thursday at Pastorius Reservoir east of Durango. (Jerry McBride/ Durango Herald)
Wolf in sheep’s clothing? Or just a wolf advocate?

SAG members referred to Skiba as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” in part, they say, because he couldn’t represent trappers, predator hunters, big game hunters, or agricultural producers. For his part, Skiba has not been shy about sharing his perspective on what the hunting community has lost with his resignation.

According to Skiba’s philosophy on wildlife management – the topic of some questioning before the Senate committee in February – hunting and wolf reintroduction are not mutually exclusive interests.

“I’m a wildlife biologist – that’s what I am,” he says.

But not everyone agreed that he could wear both the labels of “wildlife advocate” and “wolf advocate,” both of which Skiba said were appropriate titles.

Sen. Cleave Simpson, a Republican on the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee who represents the state’s 6th Senate District including Durango, the San Luis Valley and Cortez, said the ardent effort to portray Skiba as an animal-rights activist was not as important as the wolf issue.

“It just really boiled down to, above and beyond just his support for wolf reintroduction, his advocacy in that space,” Simpson said.

The senator did not observe the same adversarial dynamic that has left Skiba feeling disrespected, but acknowledged that “I'm not sitting on the other side of the table, either.”

He and Skiba agree, however, that the saga is yet another manifestation of heightened political division.

Rural and agricultural communities feel they are in the crosshairs, at times, Simpson said, and the division seeped into the hearing room.

"However you want to look at that divide, whether you look at it in Colorado as rural-urban or you’re looking at it as red and blue or Republican-Democrat or liberal-conservative – whatever it is – there is a divide,” Skiba said. “… This would have never happened five years ago.”


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