The state Game and Fish Department is spending about a million dollars a year in travel that may not be necessary or appropriate, state auditors reported Thursday.

In a report to the Legislature, Auditor General Debbie Davenport questioned whether the extent of travel, particularly to out-of-state destinations, is “clearly and adequately justified.” She particularly noted that agency Director Larry Voyles is traveling, at state expense, about one third of the year.

Those expenses totaled at least $67,000, and that's not counting another $21,800 which was paid for by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies because Voyles serves as chairman.

There also was $3,200 in conference and meeting registration fees for out-of-town events.

In a formal response, Voyles and John Harris, who chairs the Game and Fish Commission, defended the travel expenses as both reasonable and necessary.

They said the expenses total only about 1 percent of the agency's budget, and two thirds of that is for in-state travel. And they said the director, his staff and commissioners are required to travel “to all corners of Arizona to manage more than 800 species of wildlife, to provide for safe and compatible recreation, and to enforce the laws that govern wildlife, watercraft, and off-highway vehicles.”

Beyond that, they said the travel within Arizona “is critical to building relationships and promoting public engagement.”

As to that out-of-state travel, the pair defended the expenses saying there are regional and national policy forums, and they said the director is the agency's “most effective and appropriate representative,” especially when dealing with federal agencies.

Davenport, however, noted that state Game and Fish sends more representatives to conferences than other states. She said in the two most recent budget years, Arizona registered more than twice the number of representatives for three of the four conferences of a western area group, including California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

But Voyles and Harris, in their response, suggested there was as reason for this.

“There are few champions for the state conservation machine (the collective conservation system delivered by the 50 state fish and wildlife agencies) active at the nation's capital,” they wrote. “The state of Arizona is one of those champions.”

And they said states do and spend far more that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

“In the face of federal encroachment on conservation of state resources, it has become abundantly clear that Arizona's leadership role is critical to the future of the state conservation machine,” they wrote.

Beyond that, they said the commission has determined that travel to conference is necessary “to assure Arizona subject matter expert engagement on policy issues at the regional, national and international levels.”

They also said that Arizona has played a key role in developing policies about reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf in the region.

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