Letters from the West

Sportsmen mad as Otter makes Idaho Fish and Game commissioners reapply

What’s the right way to balance hunter rights and traditions while recognizing landowner contributions? Elk herds are commonly found on and around agriculture land, and over the years the Fish and Game Commission has approved some special tags for landowners to recognize the damage to private property. But tags like that are at the heart of a conflict involving lawmakers, hunters, the F&G Commission and the governor.
What’s the right way to balance hunter rights and traditions while recognizing landowner contributions? Elk herds are commonly found on and around agriculture land, and over the years the Fish and Game Commission has approved some special tags for landowners to recognize the damage to private property. But tags like that are at the heart of a conflict involving lawmakers, hunters, the F&G Commission and the governor.

Gov. Butch Otter took the unusual step of asking two Idaho Fish and Game commissioners to reapply for their appointments, which come up for renewal in July.

Mark Doerr, of Kimberly, represents the Magic Valley Region and is the current chairman of the seven-member commission. Will Naillon, of Challis, represents the Salmon Region. Already the Idaho State Bowhunters Association has gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition asking Otter to reappoint the two men.

Otter says the commissioners are welcome to reapply, according to his press secretary, Jon Hanian. If they decide to step down, he will ask them to serve on the committee he will appoint to choose their successors. Generally, the governor reappoints appointees he’s happy with, without making them re-apply for the job.

The men told the Statesman they had not decided what they will do, and will wait until after the next meeting May 16 in Coeur d’Alene to decide.

“I want to get the business of wildlife done before I make a decision,” Naillon said.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

The commission oversees an agency with a $95 million budget and 558 employees that manages all fish and wildlife in the state.

Idaho rural lawmakers have long clashed with Fish and Game over issues ranging from public access, wildlife depredation and, in recent years, special hunting tags for landowners. Selling access to private lands for hunting and fishing has become an added business for many farmers and ranchers, and a new generation of wealthy sportsmen have purchased large ranches primarily to hunt and fish.

These conflicts have prompted traditional hunters, especially, to worry that giving big game tags to landowners or selling game tags at auction will erode the traditional view that fish and game are public resources that belongs to the state.

Tad Sherman, of Eagle, president of the Idaho State Bowhunters, said the current commission has won wide support among hunters and anglers for standing up to lawmakers and landowners who want to get special hunting tags.

Many lawmakers support the landowners who want more free tags they can use or give to friends or people who buy rights to hunt their lands. The tags also are a way to recognize the habitat that private lands provide to the state’s wildlife and the damage done by big game. Other wealthy sportsmen urged the commission to authorize big game tags that can be sold at auction — now done solely for bighorn sheep — to raise funds for Fish and Game programs.

A bill was introduced this year to establish auction tags to benefit the F&G Department, but the bill died without a hearing. The commission conducted a survey of hunters that showed support for the tags. But the commission did not vote on its own auction-tag plan after sportsmen groups testified against it in a hearing, saying auctioning off tags puts a public resource up for sale to the highest bidder.

By not reappointing the two commissioners, Sherman said, Otter is caving in to the lawmakers and wealthy sportsmen who support him and who are unhappy with the commission.

Spokesman Hanian said Otter has not fired the two commissioners and they can reapply.

“This is sportsmen fighting for the commission like they never have before,” Sherman said. “Why be a commissioner if you have to do what the Legislature says?”

But Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, said sportsmen don’t recognize it’s the Legislature’s job to pass laws on fish and game issues and to decide whether to allow F&G rules to go into place.

“These issues affect more than just hunters and fishermen,” Bair said.

Bair said he did not speak to Otter about the appointments. He did say he will hold confirmation hearings if Otter reappoints the two commissioners. Some legislators are unhappy in general with the Fish and Game commissioners challenging them on the tags and other issues, but Bair declined to say what he thinks should happen to Doerr and Naillon.

The Fish and Game Commission was created by public initiative in 1938, with the goal of shielding wildlife and fish management from political interference.

But there’s no way to eliminate all political interference or involvement: Commissioners are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, the agency’s budget and rules are reviewed by the Legislature, and any fee increase needs its approval.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

Apply for F&G Commission

Anyone interested in an appointment to these Fish and Game Commission openings must live in the Magic Valley or Salmon regions. Call Ann Beebe in the Governor’s Office at 208-334-2100 or email ann.beebe@gov.idaho.gov by June 3.

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