Michael Pearce

Wildlife and Parks deals blow to its own credibility

For a state agency, withholding information from the public is a good way to lose trust and cooperation.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks took a step in that direction when it held the news of a mountain lion in western Kansas.

In early March, Colorado biologists let Kansas officials know a cat they were tracking by GPS collar was headed into Kansas. It basically traversed the state from north to south over the next three weeks.

The information wasn't made public until the June 24 commission meeting in Herington.

That's wrong.

Mountain lions are the most newsworthy animals in Kansas. Between 1904 and 2007, their very existence in the state was hotly debated.

The cat from Colorado was a big deal — it's the second confirmed in Kansas in about six months and the third in four years.

That's quite the change after a 103-year absence.

And mountain lions were in the news through most of the months the department stayed quiet.

Rep. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, tried to create a kill-at-will season on mountain lions in Kansas. Wildlife and Parks worked to prevent the season because Kansans can already legally protect their property, lives and livestock.

Through it all, Holmes and others were told we'd had only two verified mountain lions in modern times.

It wouldn't have changed many opinions with news of the third cat, but facts are facts. Holmes, his supporters, detractors, those of us reporting on the topic and anyone with any interest in the topic had a right to know.

Several Wildlife and Parks sources recently said the news of the latest mountain lion was withheld because of Holmes' push for the season. One source also said Wildlife and Parks wanted to ensure commissioners knew before the public.

No problem — they could have been called or e-mailed. Besides, we had two commission meetings between Colorado's initial call in March and last month's meeting in Herington.

On March 11 in Topeka, Holmes was there stating his case and biologist Matt Peek was stating the one for Wildlife and Parks. No mention was made of the call from Colorado.

They could have reported the entire thing at the meeting in Wichita on April 22. There's no excuse not to.

Before every meeting, Wildlife and Parks publishes a briefing book of all items to be discussed and presented. The books are wonderfully detailed. Usually.

Before the June meeting in Herington, the section devoted to Peek's "Mountain Lion Populations in Kansas" presentation was a blank page except for a half-line mention of a powerpoint presentation.

Sometimes a blank page speaks volumes.

When I asked Peek for details, he said he'd been instructed by superiors not to talk with the media.

That's only the second time in 29 years of reporting on the agency that I've had a biologist deny direct information.

I tried to call Mike Miller, Wildlife and Parks' information chief. He was on vacation.

Of all topics to hide, none makes the department look worse than mountain lions.

For decades conspiracy theorists have accused the state of such rural legends as releasing big cats to control deer numbers and having tracking devices on mountain lions in the state — and going to great lengths to hide those facts.

I guess those people now have one more reason to believe they're right.

Some key politicians have long had a deep distrust and disrespect for the department. They will bring this subject up again and again, I'm sure.

The Legislature controls the agency's purse strings. It can trump any decision the agency makes.

Fortunately this hasn't been the norm for the department. I've taken its breaking-news calls on early Sunday mornings, while in treestands and on vacation in Hawaii.

And I've always thanked department officials because we both owe it to the public.

Then again, that's when department officials have wanted media help about something like a new invasive species location or a legislative threat to their policies.

So now I'm wondering:

How often will future news be withheld from the public until commission meetings, which are sometimes two or three months apart?

And what else aren't they sharing with the public about deer management, budgets, state parks?

That's a shame.