Arizona Game and FIsh Department - Managing Today for Wildlife Tomorrow: Arizona Game and Fish Department

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Evolution of Hunting Laws, Enforcement and the Commission System

    • What do we mean by “ethical behavior” in the outdoor sense?
    • What should you do if you discover you unknowingly or inadvertently committed a wildlife violation?
  • Wildlife violations and enforcement

    • Who enforces wildlife laws?
    • Are wildlife law violations all the same?
    • Are all violations for unlawful take of wildlife considered “poaching?”
    • How does the Game and Fish Department handle unintentional wildlife violations by its employees?
  • Arizona Game and Fish Commission system

    • Why was the Commission established?
    • How is the Commission currently structured?
    • What are some of the functions of the Commission?


Members of the public often express an interest in Arizona’s hunting laws and how they were developed, how violations of wildlife laws are enforced, the tradition of outdoor ethics, and how the Arizona Game and Fish Commission system came into being and what role it plays today.

The following is some background information to help answer questions.

Evolution of hunting laws and wildlife conservation/management
Upon what concepts are hunting policies and laws based?

Wildlife management and hunting policies have evolved over time, based largely on the “public trust doctrine,” which regards wildlife as held in the public trust and managed by scientifically based regulations. During the last century, sportsmen-conservationists demanded that their government put in place agencies, institutions, laws and regulations to conserve wildlife on behalf of the citizens. As part of that demand, sportsmen/conservationists advocated ethics and self policing by any and all who partake of America’s wild bounty.

The laws, rules and regulations governing hunting form a framework for a system that is designed to provide surpluses of certain species of wildlife for hunting and fishing, revenue from which funds the conservation of all wildlife, including species that aren’t hunted. This system provides the agility for wildlife managers to respond to changes in the environment, demands of the public, fluctuating wildlife population levels, the effects of natural events (such as fire, flood, disease and drought), and other factors.

Where does funding for wildlife conservation/management come from?

While the majority of Americans treasure their wildlife heritage, few actually contribute to on-the-ground conservation. Day in and day out, it is the dollars generated by hunters and anglers that pay for the wildlife almost everyone loves.

Sportsmen/conservationists realized that funding sources were needed to help support wildlife conservation and management. The majority of this funding comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses in each state. But these individuals and groups were also leading advocates for creating dedicated federal funding to the states through passage of the Wildlife Restoration Act (Pitman-Robertson Act of 1937) and Sport Fish Restoration Act (Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950 and Wallop-Breaux Amendment of 1984). These acts were a unique partnership between sportsmen-conservationists, state and federal agencies, and private industry, to provide wildlife conservation funding to states through a federal excise tax on certain hunting and fishing equipment. Combined with hunting and fishing license sales, this funding continues to provide the majority of financial support for wildlife management and conservation today.

Arizona’s hunting laws

Laws, rules and regulations concerning hunting are complex and varied. There are state and federal laws encoded by state and federal legislation. In addition to laws, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission enacts rules and orders to implement those laws. The laws, rules and orders provide guidance to hunters about when, where, and how they can take wildlife, and how much of each species can be taken.

The Arizona Game and Fish Commission issues 29 orders for different species. Each order is reviewed and potentially revised every year or two by the Commission, based on science-based recommendations from wildlife managers. These 29 orders create a complex, dynamic set of regulations for hunters to follow. But the system must be managed this way in order for managers to be agile enough to respond to the suite of factors affecting wildlife on an annual basis. It is the responsibility of the hunter to help make the regulations, understand and follow the regulations, as well as help enforce them.

Where can you find the rules governing hunting in Arizona?

Most Arizona Game and Fish laws and rules concerning hunting (and fishing) are contained in the Arizona Revised Statutes (Title 17) and in Arizona Administrative Rules (Title 12). In some cases, hunting matters are under federal jurisdiction (for example, species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, such as waterfowl), with details available in the Code of Federal Regulations, etc.

Arizona Hunting and Trapping Regulations are published frequently and contain information such as hunt season dates, methods of take, hunt units, limits, tag application deadlines and draw details, restrictions, recommendations, and more. The regulations are available at Arizona Game and Fish offices or authorized hunting/fishing license dealers, or they can be downloaded online at

Why are the hunting and fishing laws and regulations so complex?

Hunting activities are highly regulated, and the rules, dates, hunt structure, seasons, etc. are necessarily complex due to a variety of factors, including changing biological circumstances, habitat considerations, human factors, and others. Because of the constantly evolving state of laws, rules and regulations, many of which are shaped after consideration of public input, even the most well-informed and well-intentioned hunters may find it challenging to stay up to date. Despite the complexity of the regulations, sportsmen-conservationists do a stellar job of understanding and complying with regulations.

Sportsmen-conservationist ethics
What do we mean by “ethical behavior” in the outdoor sense?

The spirit of ethics and self-policing among sportsmen is as true today as it was 100 years ago. Ethics generally relate to fairness, respect and responsibility. Aldo Leopold once said, “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching—even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” When we talk about an “ethical hunter,” we are talking about the behavior and sportsmanship an individual demonstrates in the field, whether it’s compliance with laws, courtesy with other hunters, respect for land and landowners, respect for non-hunters, and ethics in reporting honest mistakes.

Sportsmen-conservationist ethics are also in keeping with a part of our Western heritage, a heritage of conduct that emerged from a time before the frontier was settled and there was no law on the range. Referred to as “The Code of the West,” these were unwritten rules that centered on hospitality, fair play, loyalty, and respect for the land, and served as a “gentlemen’s agreement” to certain codes of conduct for survival.

What should you do if you discover you unknowingly or inadvertently committed a wildlife violation?

Honest people with good intentions occasionally make mistakes. Whether by accident or oversight, the sportsman-conservationist is ultimately responsible for his or her actions. Although self-reporting may not get someone out of a citation, it can reduce the likelihood of being cited for a revocable offense and/or receiving harsh penalties from the judicial system.

What drives a sportsman-conservationist to report himself to the authorities for a violation he or she committed unknowingly or unintentionally? It’s the legacy of ethics and self-policing that was advocated 100 years ago by the fathers of wildlife conservation and is alive and well today. Theodore Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing…”. This statement has proven over time to be descriptive of the vast majority of sportsmen-conservationists. It is absolutely descriptive of those who report themselves for inadvertently violating a wildlife law.

Wildlife violations and enforcement
Who enforces wildlife laws?

Enforcement of wildlife laws is primarily done by Arizona Game and Fish Department Wildlife Managers (Game Rangers) who are fully certified, sworn Arizona peace officers with statewide jurisdiction. Penalties for  wildlife law violations are specified in Arizona law. Also, all state peace officers have authority to enforce the state’s wildlife laws.

In addition, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, as a civil law action, has the authority to revoke an individual’s privilege to take wildlife. The Commission can also direct civil action against the individual to reimburse the State for the value of any unlawfully taken wildlife.

The Arizona hunting and fishing regulations include a list of some of the most common violations. By reviewing these before you head out, you can help make sure you are in compliance.

Are wildlife law violations all the same?

Violations of wildlife laws can generally be characterized into two categories:

  • The unintentional violator – These individuals have committed violations which are unintentional, the result of a mistake, misidentification, inaccurate information, or other extenuating circumstances;
  • The intentional violator – These individuals deliberately commit violations with the intention of improperly or illegally taking wildlife.

As mentioned previously, unintentional violators all face a test of integrity if they self-discover their violation. The vast majority of sportsmen and women have a tradition of conducting themselves in a legal and ethical manner. When they become aware they have committed a violation, the honorable and ethical action is to self-report it to the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Again, this course of action may not get someone out of a citation, but it can reduce the likelihood of being cited for a revocable offense and/or receiving harsh penalties from the judicial system. Many of the situations in the last few years where citizens have reported themselves for violations have resulted in either no citation or greatly reduced penalties (depending on the violation) compared to violations that were detected in ways other than self-reporting.

Intentional violators act with knowledge of the illegality of their act, and take steps to conceal their complicity and avoid accountability. The more severe consequences are generally reserved for these individuals who knowingly commit wildlife violations with clear intent.

Are all violations for unlawful take of wildlife considered “poaching?”

Poaching is considered to be the theft of wildlife resources from the public trust. The term “poaching” carries certain connotations with the public. Unintentional or inadvertent take of wildlife, particularly when self-reported, is not considered poaching. It can be said that, while all poaching is illegal take, not all illegal take is poaching. More simply, poaching isn’t hunting, and hunters are not poachers.

How does the Game and Fish Department handle unintentional wildlife violations by its employees?

Every now and then there are occasions when Game and Fish staff, just like the general public, unintentionally commit a wildlife violation and self report it. In cases involving officers over the years, the Department has typically issued a citation, in most cases at the officer’s request. While not a policy, this practice clearly has become a part of the way the Department’s law enforcement force defines itself. 

Arizona Game and Fish Commission system

The Arizona Game and Fish Commission is the policy-setting board overseeing the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The Commission makes rules and regulations for managing, conserving and protecting wildlife and fisheries resources, and safe and regulated watercraft and off-highway vehicle operations for the benefit of the citizens of Arizona.

Why was the Commission established?

In Arizona’s early years after statehood, politics ruled the State’s wildlife effort. Prior to 1929, wildlife management in Arizona was in the hands of the State Legislature. The Arizona Game and Fish Department at that time consisted of a game warden and 12 deputy wardens spread throughout the counties, all subject to the political influence and patronage. A group of concerned sportsmen and other wildlife enthusiasts came together to form the Arizona Game Protective Association in 1923, and they advocated for changes. Their goals included: employing scientific management of the state’s fish and wildlife; securing a game and fish commission and department staffed with competent personnel free of political obligation or interference; and educating the public in the principles of sportsmanship and the need for proper resource management.

The group went to the voters with a referendum to repeal the old game code and create the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. The referendum failed in 1926 but passed in 1928.

The first Commission, then consisting of three people, was seated in 1929. One of the first prominent examples of the Commission system’s ability to make decisions based on science and not politics is the 1929 denial of famed author Zane Grey’s request for an exception to hunt black bears during a closed season. Despite Grey’s stature in society and attempt to apply pressure, the Commission denied the request. 

How is the Commission currently structured?

Today’s Arizona Game and Fish Commission is composed of five citizens (serving staggered five-year terms) appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. Beginning in 2011, as vacancies occur, the Governor appoints the new Commissioner from a list of names provided annually by the Arizona Game and Fish Commission Appointment Recommendation Board. With regard to Commission composition, no more than one Commissioner may be from any one county, and no more than three may be from the same political party. Commission members must have knowledge of wildlife conservation and the role that harvesting wildlife resources plays in managing species.

What are some of the functions of the Commission?

The Commission approves the Game and Fish Department budget and appoints the Director of the Department to support the Commission's obligations, and provides general supervision and control of all Department functions and activities. In recent years, the Commission, as part of its functions, has strived to simplify the complex rules that govern hunting and fishing in Arizona. The rules change frequently to adjust for wildlife population fluctuations, management goals and other factors that influence hunting.

The Commission is also responsible for hearings on game law violation revocations. When certain violations are committed, regulations require the Commission to hear the case. During the hearing, the Commission will consider taking an action against a person’s hunting, fishing or trapping license (for a period up to five years), directing for a civil sanction to compensate the State for lost wildlife, and/or requiring the person to complete a hunter education course. Actions taken by the Commission are imposed as a remedial measure to increase knowledge and to prevent future violations, and, by law, are not punitive.

For more information

You can find more information on these topics in the Arizona hunting or fishing regulations or on the Department’s website at


Hunting Regulations, Season Dates & Draw Information
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