This has been a tough week for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
On Monday, as Gov. Butch Otter was preparing the give his State of the State address, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ordered the department to further restrict trapping to prevent Canada lynx from being harmed or killed in North Idaho. Then on Wednesday, the state’s wildlife agency had to apologize for violating an agreement it had with the U.S. Forest Service to dart and collar elk by landing helicopters in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
Fish and Game staff also collared four wolves, which was expressly prohibited.
These two acts tied to two different laws place the agency squarely opposite wildlife and conservation groups that should be among its best allies. Did I mention the Idaho Legislature came to town this week, too?
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The problem in both of these cases is you have conflicts between groups with sharply clashing values. The solution is to bring these groups together to find ways to protect the greatest good for the greatest number.
Idaho may have as few as 100 lynx, protected as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The problem is that at least in North Idaho, this rare cat sometimes gets caught in traps used to catch bobcats.
Winmill ordered Fish and Game to submit a plan that will protect the lynx. The conservation groups, including the Friends of the Clearwater, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity, will get to shoot at whatever plan Fish and Game comes up with, and then Winmill will decide.
What will be in that plan? You’re talking about things like using smaller leghold traps that catch bobcats but not the larger-footed lynx. You are talking about getting rid of instant-killing traps that, while considered more humane, give whatever is caught no second chance.
There also is the issue of requiring trappers to check their traps every 24 hours instead of 72. If the wildlife groups had their way, they would end trapping. But that’s not one of the choices.
Instead of going back and forth, and arguing across the judge’s bench, the two sides should sit down and find a way of meeting trappers’ needs without killing lynx. Both sides will learn more about each other this way than by filing blizzards of briefs.
The same is true with the wilderness wolf issue. Idaho Fish and Game ignored the concerns of conservation and wilderness groups when it set elk goals for the Middle Fork region in 2014, which made reducing wolves part of its plan to boost elk populations in the area.
Collaring wolves with helicopters in a wilderness in violation of its agreement with the Forest Service is going to make it pretty hard for Fish and Game to make its case for ever using helicopters. This is despite the fact that the quick work the agency made in getting the elk collared this week underscored its argument that helicopters are the least intrusive method of gathering data. If Idaho Fish and Game is simply gathering data to kill more wolves, it will continue to have a fight.
Why not begin a formal conversation between conservation groups, outfitters, hunters and others about how to manage wildlife in the Frank? The commission can demonstrate its sincerity by reopening the elk management plan there and starting from scratch.
Of course, when I mentioned the department’s mistaken collaring of the wolves to an Idaho lawmaker, he said many hunters would have considered it a mistake that Fish and Game didn’t just shoot the wolves. None of this is easy.