POWELL – A Jackson-based nonprofit has sent a formal complaint to Gov. Mark Gordon about gifts that an outfitting group presented to two Game and Fish Commissioners at the end of their terms — and has filed a lawsuit over commissioner donations to the group.
However, those involved claim Mountain Pursuit’s actions are politically motivated and riddled with mistakes; for instance, the commissioners did not accept the gifts the group is complaining about.
A cease and desist letter was sent Friday by one of the former commissioners in the group’s sights.
Mountain Pursuit, which describes itself as a hunter advocacy organization, is led by Rob Shaul of Hoback. He’s a vocal critic of Game and Fish regulations and actions of the department’s governing commission and has pushed particularly hard for more hunting licenses to be allocated for resident hunters.
In one piece penned last year, Shaul said Wyoming’s resident hunters are “getting screwed.”
He’s been sharply critical of outfitters’ support of the current system and the relationship between the industry and the Game and Fish.
In April, Mountain Pursuit sued the Game and Fish Commission over a pair of complimentary 2021 licenses that former Commissioner David Rael of Cowley and current Commissioner Gay Lynn Byrd gave to the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association (WYOGA).
Then earlier this month, the group asked Gordon’s office to open an ethics inquiry over a guided river rafting trip and lodging that WYOGA President Sy Gilliland presented to Rael and then-Commissioner Pat Crank of Cheyenne during their final commission meeting in January. (Muley Fanatics, a nonprofit organization, also presented the commissioners with a plaque and Bowhunters of Wyoming, Inc. publicly thanked Rael and Crank for their six years of volunteer service.)
Shaul claims the gifts from WYOGA violated an executive order on ethics and a state law prohibiting public officials from using their office or position for private benefit.
“It is stunning that Game and Fish Commissioners are accepting all-expenses paid, guided trips from the outfitters, in an open meeting and in clear violation of the statute covering government ethics,” Shaul said in a release. “This is a shining example of the overly cozy relationship the Game and Fish Commission has with the outfitters, that comes at the expense of the interests of resident hunters and wildlife.”
However, Rael and Crank never actually accepted the gift, as the commissioners declined the free trips, Gilliland said.
Further, in his initial piece criticizing the commission’s donations of tags, Shaul inaccurately said that commissioners Crank and Ralph Brokaw had donated 2021 tags to WYOGA.
Crank sent a cease and desist letter to Shaul on Friday.
“You have in the past several months made several false and defamatory statements regarding me. I write to urge you to stop this behavior immediately so you can limit the damage you have caused me and will continue to cause if you continue with your tortuous, willful, and reckless behavior,” read the letter from Crank, who previously served as Wyoming's attorney general.
Crank said Shaul has repeatedly sought to defame members of the commission, including himself, with claims the commission works in secret to benefit WYOGA and the outfitting industry.
“All of your allegations that I am bought and paid for by WYOGA, (that) I am an automatic vote for WYOGA on any issue supported by WYOGA on the Wildlife Task Force, that I violated executive orders, ethics rules, and state statutes, are patently fraudulent, libelous, scandalous, defamatory and false,” Crank wrote to Shaul in the cease and desist letter. “Are you just a liar, are you willing to say whatever you think will gain you the most attention, are you just that ignorant, or is this another malicious lie?”
In a Monday response, Shaul apologized for inaccurately saying that Crank and Brokaw had provided 2021 tags to the outfitting group.
“We’re not sure exactly what happened. Most likely we got confused by nonprofit names,” Shaul wrote, noting Crank and Brokaw actually donated tags to the Wyoming Game Wardens Association.
However, he doubled down on his criticisms of the commission and its resistance to making more licenses available for nonresidents.
Shaul also accused Crank of making a “clumsy attempt to intimidate, bully and silence criticism of your conduct as a public official.”
“It’s clear from the angry tone of your letter that we’ve hurt your feelings. We are so sorry! Who would have thought that a grizzled, veteran trial attorney could be so sensitive?” Shaul wrote to Crank. “May we suggest you call your Mom, a close childhood friend, or Sy Gilliland for support. That might help.”
Mountain Pursuit has led a number of other campaigns, including calling for the end of all complimentary commissioner’s tags given to non-profit organizations and pushing for all coyote hunters and shed foragers to be required to buy permits issued by Game and Fish.
Previously the group sued the U.S. Forest Service in an attempt to halt mountain biking in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area and all-terrain vehicle use in the Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Area.
When a federal judge dismissed the complaint, Shaul wrote on the group’s website that, “we learned a lot with our lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service and are looking for another issue to litigate.”
Gilliland, the WYOGA president, said Shaul is making “toxic” attempts to bring prominence to the group through litigation.
“Virtually everything Shaul says in (his newsletters) has a little flavor of something that actually happened,” he said Monday. “But the direction he takes it is not true — it’s not the whole story as to what transpired and his newsletters are designed to inflame and cause division.”
Gilliland said all of the topics are complicated, with many moving parts.
“You can’t just take these issues and slice them up and say it’s either/or, because that’s not the case,” he said, adding that changes to the regulations bring “an incredible number of effects on a lot of different things down the line. “You have to look at the foundation of all these issues, like preference points and resident/non-resident splits, landowner licenses,” Gilliland said. “All those issues have to be looked at and, if change is needed, it be done in a manner that is well thought out and researched.”
Gilliland said he is looking for a silver lining, and thinks some good will come from conversations Mountain Pursuit has initiated.
“There’s a lot of issues that are going to be discussed. And all of them are pertinent to the whole picture of how the Game and Fish operates,” he said.
However, Gilliland also said he’d like to see conversations initiated by Mountain Pursuit go forward in a responsible and less combative manner.