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story.lead_photo.caption An Arkansas Game and Fish Commission sign in downtown Little Rock is shown in this 2019 file photo. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday tapped Fort Smith businessman Bennie Westphal to serve on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, filling the vacancy created by the death of commissioner Joe Morgan last month.

Westphal is chief executive officer of the Westphal Group, a real estate development company also involved in oil and gas investments and insurance sales, according to a news release from the governor's office.

"Bennie Westphal brings to this position a love of the outdoors and years of experience as a businessman and community leader," Hutchinson said in the statement. "I have known Bennie for over 30 years, and I have full confidence in his commitment to conservation and to serving the public in this key position."

Westphal, a former football player for the Arkansas Razorbacks, has a master's degree in business administration and a juris doctorate from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

The governor also noted Westphal's positions on boards of companies and organizations in the Fort Smith area, including the Boys and Girls Club and the U.S. Marshals Museum.

Calls seeking comment were left at Westphal's office but not returned Friday.

In a statement included with the governor's announcement, Westphal said, "It is an honor to be appointed to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. ... Arkansas is so abundant in its natural beauty. I have been an avid hunter and fisherman most of my life and look forward to learning and working with the Commission."

The governor's appointment comes several weeks after the death of Morgan, who was Hutchinson's first appointment to the Game and Fish Commission in 2015. Morgan, an automotive dealer and duck-hunting advocate, died Nov. 21 of complications from pulmonary fibrosis.

Westphal will serve the remainder of Morgan's term, which ends July 1, 2022, said a spokeswoman for the governor.

State Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, expressed confidence in the governor's pick Friday, despite a lack of familiarity with Westphal.

"I'm happy any time we can get another sportsman on the Game and Fish Commission," Wardlaw said.

An avid hunter from south Arkansas, Wardlaw said the commission faces a number of challenges in the next year, from securing adequate funding to a shortage of bottomland hardwood forests that are available to flood because of tree die-offs. Such forests, known as "green tree reservoirs," attract ducks, and thus duck hunters.

"We've lost that hunter population because we don't have these green tree reservoirs," Wardlaw said.

The commission has also worked for several years to control the spread of chronic wasting disease, a degenerative neurological disease affecting deer, elk and moose. The disease was identified in Arkansas in 2016 and has spread to 13 counties.

Westphal is Hutchinson's seventh appointment to the Game and Fish Commission. Commissioners Rob Finley, Anne Marie Doramus, John David "J.D" Neeley, Stan Jones and Bobby Martin were also appointed by the Republican governor.

The commission consists of seven voting members appointed by the governor, as well as one nonvoting member who is the chair of the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Arkansas, currently Dr. Steven Beaupre.

The commission is chaired by Andrew Parker, who was appointed by then-Gov. Mike Beebe in 2014. Commissioners serve seven-year terms and are unpaid.

Westphal and his wife, Landy, live in Fort Smith. The couple have two daughters and four grandchildren, according to the governor's office.

Information for this article was contributed by Bryan Hendricks of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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