I've covered Idaho Fish and Game and the commission for more than 15 years and never seen them take as courageous a stand on behalf of Idaho hunters and anglers.
Legislators are considering adding language to the fee-increase bill currently before lawmakers that would mandate three highly controversially provisions:
• Allowing the sale of landowner tags.
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• Putting premium big-game tags up for auction.
• Adding bonus points to controlled hunts.
All three proposals have been before the commission on several occasions, and they were wisely shot down.
The commission's reasoning is simple: They're unfair to Idaho citizens and the long-standing Idaho tradition of equal access to fish and game, which is the same reason the commission is willing to forgo a fee increase that could boost F&G's budget by $1 million annually.
"We certainly respect the Legislature's role in setting wildlife policy, but the commission has considered all these issues in recent years and vetted each of them with hunters, anglers, trappers and the general public. In all three cases, a majority made it clear to us they were opposed and we acted accordingly," commissioners wrote in an open letter released Wednesday.
Commissioners pointed out that it was a 1938 citizens' initiative that created the nonpartisan board to manage the state's wildlife without undue influence from politicians.
"If lawmakers proceed and attempt to bypass the commission and implement these measures through legislation, they are compromising the spirit of that initiative by overruling extensive sportsmen involvement and thoughtful commission deliberations," they wrote.
The commissioners said they have been told repeatedly by sportsmen and women to:
• Manage wildlife for the good of all Idahoans, not just a privileged few.
• Keep hunting, fishing and trapping opportunities available and affordable for everyday Idahoans.
• Reward landowners for supporting wildlife habitat or public access without sacrificing state ownership of wildlife.
• Keep politics out of wildlife management.
That concurs with what I heard after spending countless hours in commission meetings as various commissioners came and went. There were long and, at times heated, discussions over the same three things the legislators are seeking. But in the end, the balance always tipped toward average Idahoans over wealthy and out-of-state hunters who often cherry-pick other state's prime tags because they can afford to do so.
Make no mistake, prime deer and elk tags are very valuable. Whether sold by F&G or private landowners, they're worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, more than the tag's face value. A single mule deer tag for Antelope Island in Utah recently sold at auction to a Canadian outfitter for $390,000. That's an extreme case, but at the same time, Idaho's lone bighorn sheep auction tag regularly sells for more than $100,000 -- and rarely to an Idahoan.
If prime big-game tags started getting sold on the open market by landowners, they've just lined their pockets with game that every Idahoan owns.
Auction tags would take precious premium deer and elk tags from an already limited pool of controlled hunt tags and deprive hunters who've been trying for years to draw one.
If bonus points are added, it makes it more difficult for new hunters and young hunters to draw a quality tag. It puts them at the end of a very long line. It will take years for them to reach the head of the line, if they ever do.
But the reasoning to oppose these three bad ideas that won't die goes beyond that. It goes to the heart of a long tradition of wildlife management in Idaho.
"For 76 years, the commission, along with sportsmen and women, have worked together to create the tremendous wildlife resources and heritage we have in Idaho today. We ask the Legislature to pass the commission-supported revenue bill without compromising the commission's integrity and its management role," commissioners wrote.
To read more about this issue, see Rocky Barker's story here.