Ed’s Notes

hunter and dog
Next Stop Texas?
5/29/2014

How do Idahoans reward landowners who gladly host big game wildlife on their places without going further down the road to commercialization of our treasured resource? The question is a little more involved than might appear on the surface.

Before June 6, we are invited to comment on a proposal before the Idaho Fish and Game Commission that would allow landowners to sell big game tags.

(The exact wording of the proposed rule and procedures for commenting on it are found on the Idaho Department of Fish and Game website. The specific page is here and includes the text of the New Draft Proposal of the Landowner Appreciation Program – Version 2. Then hit the “Comment Here” link under “STATUS.”)

Commercialization, making hunting “a rich man’s game,” has been deeply unpopular in Idaho for generations. We are about to see whether this is still true.

The sentiment against allowing hunting, and hunting arms, only for the ruling classes goes all the way back to the founding of the country when Americans wanted to overturn European social and political values anywhere they could. It took a while for this country to build a generally equitable wildlife management system that works, but it serves us so well that major changes are viewed with justifiable skepticism.

The current situation with landowner tags grew out of the best possible intentions. I can speak to the origins, having been one of the original members of the committee that negotiated wildlife and agricultural concerns involved in writing Idaho’s depredation law. That process worked out well, and relations became amicable enough, that the committee was charged with looking at other ways to make life better for landowners and wildlife. Landowners who had already, on their own, invested time and resources in bettering wildlife habitat were recognized for their attitude and efforts.

Folks who are keen on wildlife in Idaho recognize a fundamental: big game herds are only as large as the number that can fit through winter’s needle. In most places, public lands provide enough summer, fall, and spring range but winter will drive animals to lower elevations. Those elevations are where we live with our ranches, farms, houses and towns. Animals and people both need the conditions river valleys provide.

A few lucky places still have some winter range on public lands—the Boise Front comes to mind—but winter big game range in many other parts of the state is owned by people who tolerate the herds with wildly varying degrees of enthusiasm.

All that in mind, it seemed long ago to be a good idea for Fish and Game to provide the chance for landowners who hold significant areas of habitat to have hunting tags in units where controlled hunt tags are otherwise available only through the random drawing system. Hunters were generally fair-minded enough to see the justice in this idea, though some worried that establishing a formal system of tags for landowning families might be the camel’s nose under the tent.

The rest of the camel joins us in the tent when tags become a property right and go up for sale. You hear the argument that the landowner should have some compensation for damage big game may do but one wonders what is different now than it has been for 150 years?

The thing we know is different now is the price of a prime big game tag.

So where’s the harm? It is a reasonable question especially in a devotedly free market society like Idaho’s.

To mention only the obvious potentials, we can expect to see more of the recent trend for agricultural lands to end up in the hands of owners who have no interest in agriculture or the communities that support it. With the added inducement of a reliable cash-flow stream from tag sales to offset ownership costs, large chunks of Idaho could go to exclusive hunting clubs. It is hard enough now to find permission for private land hunting; it could get a whole lot tougher in a hurry.

The perception of Idaho providing a fair system for awarding big game tags will surely take a huge hit from the working middle class crowd that still makes up the vast portion of the hunting population.

The future of hunting in Idaho will be better if the Commission takes the conservative approach and keeps the landowner tag rule as is. If it goes with the proposed rule, Idaho would not be Texas yet—as long as we can keep a hold on our public lands—but some of us are starting to smell no-bean chili and Lone Star lager.

Previous Post
Idaho public lands | lands disposal
Takeover a Non-starter?
4/9/2014

The label “non-starter” was applied several times to the idea of Idaho taking over federal lands in Idaho in one of the public hearings held by a state legislative committee looking into the issue.

Seeking nullification of one of the very best ideas this country has ever come up with—holding substantial pieces of America in common for current and future generations—would seem to be an obvious “non-starter” to most of us. We must concede, though, that some see nothing wrong with an unbroken stretch of “no trespassing” signs from sea to shining sea.

At this particular hearing in Boise, the first speaker to use the “non-starter” phrase was the lawyer for one of Idaho’s Native American tribes, the Coeur d’ Alenes. It was echoed by spokespersons for Idaho Outfitters and Guides as well as the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers organization. The rest of the Idaho tribes also spoke against lands transfer in polite but firm tones.

Several conservation organizations sent representatives to the hearing. Not one spoke in favor of the transfer idea.

The only groups at this session who did come out in relative favor of Idaho taking over federally-managed lands were livestock grazing organizations and their support was somewhat qualified. One of their spokesmen pointed out that Idaho would need to bring its grazing lease rate, currently more than $6 per AUM (animal unit month) on state-owned lands, more in line with the federal lands rate of less than $1.50.

This, obviously, is a nutshell account of an hours-long hearing. One of the questions raised by several speakers deserves special attention: Where would Idaho finds the tens of millions of dollars to fight forest and rangeland fires such as we have seen in recent years? Another: How would Idaho manage for public use when state lands now are not considered public lands—although recreational use is tolerated—and the Idaho Department of Lands budget for recreational use is zero?

If quick disposal of federally-managed lands is the goal, these questions are moot.

It is too easy to dismiss the whole matter as a cockeyed show of bravado that might, at worst, cost the state’s taxpayers a nasty legal bill and not go anywhere. Unfortunately, it is bigger than that and Idaho is in play as part of a national agenda. The who’s who in the background is intriguing but best left to future elucidation.

Predicting an outcome at this point would be foolishly premature but it looks as though the tribes have a compelling claim to the legal high ground. Treaties trump legislation, especially when vigorously defended.

If 21st century Indians end up spoiling the raid on the lands where they still hold ancient rights, the rest of us who live for the wild Idaho experience will be in their debt. The historical irony will be thick enough to slice.

Previous Post
Sagebrush Rebellion Redux?

Hunters, anglers and all others who value Idaho’s backcountry need to heed new murmurs of mischief about our public lands. Bad ideas seem to have a life of their own, surviving the hammer blows of history.

Early in this year’s legislative session we heard some rumbling in the Idaho statehouse that sounded like a Sagebrush Rebellion Redux but the immediate causes of inflammation were not evident, as they were back in the Reagan era. So the reasons that our state legislature was hearing from a representative of the Utah legislature—that citadel of enlightened lawmaking—about new plans to transfer federal lands to state ownership seemed unclear.

What finally emerged took the form of a resolution that contains a long list of itches and complaints, many of which we have heard before but a few that are novel. The convoluted text explains the subject but provides no clarity of the why now? question. Rather than risk mischaracterizing anyone’s handiwork or bearing the responsibility for boring any dear reader to death right here, I suggest reading this thing—House Concurrent Resolution No. 21—for yourself on the official Idaho web page.

The House did take action on the resolution by setting up a study committee, which was called upon to hold public meetings before the next session. These meetings will be your best immediate opportunity to let our state leaders understand just how much you like the idea of losing access to your wide open Idaho spaces forever.

When promoters tell you—and they will—this will not be the result if federal lands are carved off, ask for a definition of “disposal.”

Idaho and Utah are not the only places public lands are under pressure. Nevadans have been hearing similar talk. Not one to indulge in conspiracy thinking, it is nevertheless obvious to me that a national movement is afoot.

The U. S. House version of the federal budget contains language that must be taken seriously. The language is, probably purposely, unclear but the gist of it is that the country has all this public land that is not doing much and that we could just turn it into deficit reduction by selling it off to the highest bidder.

A point not often made about the expense of keeping our public lands traditions alive is that the operating costs of all federal lands agencies added together do not make a decent rounding error in the national budget. The two biggest federal land management agencies were set up to largely fund themselves.

When politicians flag the bloody shirt of federal deficit in our faces while decrying the extent of public land holdings, we are obviously not hearing the whole message which is more about ideology than finance. Congress tackled the difficult question of lands value in a 2010 report and came up with $408 billion. That is a nice chunk of change and would be a welcome addition to anyone’s retirement plan but would not write off five months of last year’s federal deficit.

Anyone inclined to read this far, I will assume for the sake of brevity, understands just how bad this idea is. Our readership probably does not include those who do not know or care about public lands and surely not the billionaires who look longingly to the choice bits of world they have failed so far to control.

It is hard for anyone who simply wants to live a western life and leave others alone but issue needs your participation. Our legislature showed the wisdom to take the matter to the Idaho public through an interim committee process. We should do the courtesy of showing up at hearings in our local areas.

Hunting Editor Ed Mitchell grew up in a ranching and farming family in southern Idaho, graduated from the College of Idaho and returned to the state following a European tour of Army duty during the Cold War era. He covered state and local politics, courts, agriculture and the outdoors as a newspaperman before beginning an entrepreneurial career with his own hunting and fishing periodical and books. He is an original partner in establishing the Idaho Fish ‘n’ Hunt website in the early days of the World Wide Web. He was associated with conservation entities for most of his adult life before retiring to the hills and forests of southwest Idaho.