Clarification: Idaho Fish and Game eliminated 10 positions during the downturn between 2011 and 2014.
Drive a rural or mountain road on a Saturday in the fall, and you’re sure to see trucks loaded with hunting gear: dog kennels, four-wheelers and camouflage canoes. But hunting in Idaho is much more than a passionate pursuit. It’s a booming business that contributes $478 million annually to the state’s economy.
We talked to three members of the hunting industry, a thriving trade in the state that Idaho Fish and Game boasts is now “bigger than spuds.”
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Trent Bullock, owner of Elk Creek Outfitters, has two jobs — one he does for the money, the other to feed his passion.
“I make way more money building fence than guiding hunters,” said Bullock, who opened ECO in Emmett in 2004. “But I’ll never give up the hunting. My love is outfitting.”
Bullock recently expanded his guide service in the Krassel Ranger District of the Payette National Forest, paying $75,000 to buy out an existing permit and winning an application process for another, which allows him to expand his area from 80 square miles to 250. He’s banking on the expansion to help his bottom line.
In the past decade, hunting outfitters such as Bullock have had three factors working against them: predator reintroduction, customer perception and the economy. Bullock explained that while wolves affected elk numbers — his cash crop — the economy tanked, and at the same time the general perception among out-of-state hunters was that the wolf population had decimated elk herds, putting a serious hurt on his business.
But things have improved now that wolves are being controlled and the economy is on an upswing, said Bullock, who doesn’t want to bash reintroduction efforts but is simply dealing with what he sees. And he’s beginning to see a recovery, as a generation of elk have been born and raised around wolves, helping the species adapt and survive.
“Idaho still doesn’t have a good reputation. It’s going to take time,” said Bullock, who takes in about $200,000 in revenue each season. “But we’re raising elk again in Idaho. We’re seeing young bulls and spikes. In the rough years, we’d go all fall and not see any spikes. That’s definitely going to help Idaho recover as a hunting destination.”
To sit in Virgil Moore’s office listening to the silver-haired leader of Idaho’s most important wildlife agency talk hunting, one thing is apparent: The man is passionate about game management. And like many in the hunting business, Idaho Fish and Game has had a lean decade, only recently starting to recover.
The majority of Fish and Game funding comes through license and tag sales, although every dime spent must have legislative approval, Moore said. While the independent nature of this arrangement gives the agency autonomy, it can also make it more susceptible to economic fluctuations.
Nonresident hunting licenses and tags, specifically, have been a significant problem. Between 2011 and 2014, Idaho Fish and Game saw an $8 million decline in nonresident license sales. Moore attributes the downturn to a lagging economy, a fee hike for nonresidents and the perception that “there’s a wolf hiding behind every tree.”
The agency had to respond in kind, cutting 10 positions in 2014. But this year, Moore said, there’s reason for optimism. Game numbers look extremely promising, thanks to recent mild winters. Predation management techniques enacted in the past few years are beginning to work. And while nonresident hunting has fallen off, resident hunting license purchases are at all-time highs. Moore hopes to be able to increase important aerial monitoring of game and is generally excited about where the agency is economically.
“To me, the satisfaction comes not necessarily from the harvest, but just from seeing animals,” he said. “If I see a few nice animals and am not successful, I know it’s my skill level that’s keeping me from harvesting. And succeeding in that management process, improving our game numbers, that’s what drives us.”
Caleb Leuthold grew up hunting in Midvale because he had to. His family subsidized their grocery bill by chasing game.
These days, hunting still sustains his lifestyle, but that’s because it’s his job. Leuthold, 38, owns the Shooters Bench in Meridian. When he was a kid, he remembers going into The Outdoorsman in Ontario, Ore., or the old Intermountain Arms in Meridian and dreaming of owning his own shop someday.
“We’ve been here two-and-a-half years,” he said. “We’re all about providing better customer service than big-box stores as far as knowledge of the product and experience using it.”
And that knowledge has paid off, he said. Local hunters support him because they prefer to frequent locally owned businesses. Plus they appreciate that he carries local products such as Kryptek, an Eagle-based clothing line, and Eberlestock, based in Boise, which manufactures backpacks and other hunting accessories.
Aside from supplies and ammo, Leuthold specializes in adjusting rifle scopes. It’s a service that naturally puts one in close contact with customers. He hears all the talk and complaints. Like how Idaho lacks a point system on controlled hunts that would allow those who don’t draw to earn points toward a tag for sought-after hunts. Or purchasing whims: He can’t keep .22-caliber ammo in stock.
“People like to horde .22 ammo away,” he said. “If they see a box of shells, even if they don’t need it, they buy it.”
But it’s that personal touch that always brings people back into his store, he said. “People always check with me first when looking for hunting supplies,” he said.
Joe Carberry is a Boise native who got his start in journalism at the Idaho Statesman. A longtime magazine editor, he now works as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated, Outside and other publications.