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California's Department of Fish and Game gets a name change -- and controversy

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

This logo will be changing on Jan.1.

Call them words of war between hunters and wildlife activists: Starting Jan. 1, California's Department of Fish and Game will become Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The change, hunters say, reflects a move away from traditional hunting and fishing values and is part of a bigger push by the Humane Society of the United States to eliminate hunting across the nation.

Environmentalists and animal activists say it reflects a move to manage all wildlife in the state, not just "game" for hunters.

California's change will leave just 12 states using "game" in the name of the agency overseeing wildlife, according to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. (Those are: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming.)

Eighteen states use "wildlife," while the others use "natural resources" or "conservation."

Moreover, data from the association and the National Conference of State Legislatures indicates the shift away from "game" is accelerating, the Associated Press reported.

California's change was made in state legislation signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last week. The bill was one of six signed by Brown that the Humane Society championed as "reinforcing California’s standing as a national leader in animal protection."

The change was made "to accurately reflect the state agency's broader mission," bill sponsor Sen. Jared Huffman, a Democrat who previously was an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. 

Huffman said the proposed name change came from a majority on the 51-seat advisory panel convened to discuss the department's strategic vision.

The Humane Society, which was on the panel, said the change reflects a department "representing an ever-expanding constituency."

It ranges "from hunters to people who head into the woods to hike and watch wildlife," Casey Pheiffer, wildlife policy director for the group, told NBC News. "Wildlife face so many threats, from poaching to habitat loss, and the agency harnessing the support of all Californians — not just one constituency — is so important moving forward."

But some hunting groups opposed the change and were vocal about it.

Mike Faw, spokesman for the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, told NBC News that besides "re-printing a mountain of papers, creating new signs and logos, and the enormous cost to go through the state publications and eradicate the old name," he heard from numerous hunters that they oppose the name change.

"Generally, that means a shift toward butterflies, endangered species and other stuff like that," he told the Associated Press.

The California Outdoor Heritage Alliance was also opposed, and said its partners were vastly outnumbered on the department's strategic vision advisory panel.

Earlier the group had been telling supporters that the Humane Society "will attack hunting in California first, taking it one species at a time, until all types of hunting are eliminated — then take their forces to other states."

That group cited another bill signed by Brown last week as a case in point. It outlaws the use of dogs to hunt bears and bobcats in the state, making it "easily the most severe anti-hunting legislation ever passed into California law," the group stated.

The law, it added, "sets precedent placing the hunting of pigs, deer, pheasants, quail, ducks and other species with dogs in serious jeopardy."

The Humane Society does oppose hunting in principle but Pheiffer said it was not on a campaign to ban it nationwide. "Absolutely not," said Pheiffer. "The threat to hunting comes from extreme groups ...  You can’t just shut your eyes and ignore the fact that 99 percent of Californians don’t hunt and then just decide that their values are negligible."

The Outdoor Heritage Alliance earlier cried foul when the Humane Society launched a campaign to remove the director of the California Fish and Game Commission, a regulatory body separate from the department.

The commission board last August removed Dan Richards as director after the Humane Society and others protested when Richards was photographed in a hunting magazine with a mountain lion he had shot in Idaho. It's legal to do so in Idaho, but not California.

Huffman, the state senator, said he understood the nervousness of hunters but insisted hunting and fishing still have a place in California.

"I think people will just have to bear with us and have this play out over time," he told the Associated Press. "I am very confident this is going to be good not only for hunting and fishing but for all aspects of the department's mission."

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