State Politics

Emails reveal political pressure that cost Fish and Game commissioners their jobs

Will Naillon, left, and Mark Doerr
Will Naillon, left, and Mark Doerr

Communications acquired by an Idaho wildlife group show that a wealthy Idaho businessman who favors the auctioning coveted hunting tags successfully advocated for two Idaho Fish and Game commissioners who opposed the idea to lose their jobs.

The cache of emails also shows a growing animosity and turf war between the commission and key legislators as they clashed over auction tags — with the commission saying the tags give wealthy hunters an unfair advantage and legislators saying they would raise much-needed revenue for Fish and Game.

The Idaho Wildlife Federation acquired hundreds of pages of emails from a handful of state legislators, Gov. Butch Otter’s staff and Pocatello businessman Doug Sayer through open records law. The group said the emails show the state’s system of wildlife management is under threat from monied interests and political influence.

“Idahoans enjoy a world-class wildlife resource thanks to our independent Fish and Game commission,” said Kahle Becker with the Idaho Wildlife Federation. “The strong-arm politics we have unveiled are a direct threat to Idaho sportsmen and the hunting heritage we have built over decades.”

In a message sent to Otter’s chief of staff, David Hensley, on March 16, Sayer writes about his frustration with the commission and Idaho Fish and Game Department Director Virgil Moore for not being more receptive to auction tags as a source of revenue for wildlife management. He suggests a “change of chemistry” is needed on the commission as well as a change of leadership at the department.

“I must recommend to you that we do not reappoint Mark Doerr or Will Naillon when their term expires in June. It would be unfair of me to complain and not offer a possible solution, I know a couple of candidates that I feel would do a better job and I would also be willing to sit on a search committee if needed,” he wrote. “It is a difficult and severe problem but when faced with something like this, one also needs to look at the top of the organization and wonder if that individual is part of the problem. In this case I believe Virgil and especially his deputy director are in fact promoting the culture that we now experience.”

Sayer, who did not return messages seeking comment, is chief business officer for Premier Technology Inc. and chairman of the Wild Sheep Foundation. Along with lobbyist Jon Watts, of Boise, Sayer authored successful legislation in 2010 that gives the commission authority to issue up to a dozen auction tags, three each for deer, elk and antelope and one each for moose, elk and bighorn sheep. The measure was carried in the Legislature by Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, and Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star.

Sayer’s email was sent shortly after the seven-member commission declined to implement auction tags. About two months later, Otter declined to reappoint Doerr and Naillon to second terms but said they could reapply. They declined. Both men have said they lost their jobs because of their refusal to bend to the will of people like Sayer, Bair and Moyle.

“It’s not a real surprise that that was going on,” Naillon said of the political pressure exposed in the email. “I think it just really proved everything that everybody thought.”

Jon Hanian, a spokesman for Otter, maintains that Naillon and Doerr were not dismissed from their positions but instead chose not to reapply.

During the most recent legislative session, Moyle and Bair pushed a bill that would have mandated the commission to issue auction tags by changing language from “may” to “shall” in the existing legislation. The bill never made it out of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, which is chaired by Bair.

Doerr said it’s clear the legislators and Sayer were trying to pressure the commission to do something they knew would be difficult to accomplish through lawmaking. Hunters in the state repeatedly told the commission at public meetings they oppose auction tags.

“The commission is not a tool or arm of the Legislature. We are not required to follow their position because they deem it to be so,” Doerr said. “If the Legislature disagrees with the commission’s position on any issue they have ability to introduce legislation and make the change they desire. This whole issue was about auction tags, and as the emails show, Sen. Bair did not have the votes in his own committee to move it to the floor of the Senate.”

According to the emails, comments Doerr submitted to legislators over Senate Bill 1344 — which required Fish and Game to outsource its annual lottery for high-quality hunting tags — angered legislators. In his comments, Doerr talks about the intent of the 1938 initiative that created Fish and Game to insulate game management from political influence. The initiative gave the commission authority to administer policy.

“With that in mind I ask you, how many laws need to be written by the Legislature, restricting commission authority to administer the policy, before you have effectively nullified the commission and the voters? At some point, after a number of new laws, you have overridden the citizens initiative and without asking their opinion, rendered their collective voting, 78 (percent) of voters in 1938, irrelevant,” he wrote.

Bair, in an email sent to Sayer in the fall of 2015, referenced the clash between the commission and some lawmakers over auction tags.

“So, currently, I have never seen relationships so tenuous and stressed between the Legislature and (Fish and Game). The department has decided to take a hard policy line this coming session, knowing well that they will never get the fee increases they desire by taking such hard line positions,” he wrote. “In fact, last week as they reviewed their goals with us, they did not even mention fee increases. I guess they have chosen power of policy over fee increases.”