Outdoors

New Fish and Game director plans to keep Idaho ‘one of the last best places’

Tour an Idaho fish hatchery

The Sawtooth Fish Hatchery near Stanley raises salmon to compensate for those lost due to the construction and use of four Lower Snake River dams.
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The Sawtooth Fish Hatchery near Stanley raises salmon to compensate for those lost due to the construction and use of four Lower Snake River dams.

By his admission, Ed Schriever’s mantra of “balance and stretch” sounds like an exercise routine for old guys.

Schriever recently took over as director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, replacing longtime leader Virgil Moore. The deputy director has been with the department for 35 years, his entire career.

He described managing fish and wildlife populations and the people who wish to interact with them through hunting, fishing, trapping and simply by viewing animals in the wild, as a balancing act. Game managers have to weigh the needs of the animals against the desires of people and they also have to continue to stretch their capacity to do so through new technologies and effective communication.

While managing wildlife is difficult, people make the job especially tricky. Hunters, anglers and non-hunters all want abundant wildlife populations. But beyond that they often seek different things. Some hunters simply want to get out and have a decent chance of filling a tag. Others want the opportunity to harvest mature deer and elk. Many anglers are happy to fish for planted trout or warm water species like bass. Others want to pursue native species like west slope cutthroat trout or anadromous species like salmon and steelhead.

“The world of fish and wildlife management and conservation is complex. There is a lot of moving parts and one of the things we do, and I think do well, is provide some balance,” Schriever said. “There is always going to be folks who have an opportunity to be critical of the policies of the state and how the Fish and Game Department and the (Fish and Game) Commission work to implement those policies in a balanced format.”

For example, some salmon and steelhead advocates are critical of the department for the number of hatchery fish the state releases each year. They fear those fish will spawn with wild fish and weaken the genetics that have allowed native salmon and steelhead to survive across the centuries.

Fish hatcheries critical

Schriever said the department believes in protecting wild fish, but hatchery fish remain critical to Idaho anglers. Without them, he said there would be no opportunity to fish for salmon and steelhead and the connection people have with salmon and steelhead would not be as strong.

“That is the only opportunity for folks to consumptively interact with (salmon and steelhead). People interacting with their wildlife is how wildlife remains relevant to people in our society,” he said. “So hatcheries are important and hatcheries are a promise that was made to people of this state when the hydro system (dams) was being developed. We are not in a position to walk away or say that is not important. It is hugely important to people.”

Many aspects of wild fish recovery are beyond the department’s control. That includes things like poor ocean conditions and, yes, the presence of dams on the lower Snake River. But Schriever said the department is engaged with other states, the federal government and Indian tribes in how best to recover wild fish. He said dams are not the only problem facing the fish.

“I think many of those people see dam removal as a silver bullet and it is not. The things that effect fish are more complex than just dams,” he said. “There is lots of things going on to minimize the negative effects of dams on fish and it’s not perfect and it’s a societal balance.”

Schriever sturgeon.jpg
Provided by Ed Schriever

The state of elk herds in backcountry areas of the Clearwater basin, such as the Lolo Zone, is another difficult issue that requires give and take. Schriever said both habitat and predators are a problem. The department has more control over predators than it does the habitat that is largely managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

“We have been slow to get the kind of habitat recovery necessary to get the productivity of that elk herd back up and they are being influenced by predators and we are managing predators to try to keep that elk population productive enough that it will respond when the habitat allows,” he said.

With the fee increase approved by the Idaho Legislature in 2017, and the improved economy that has led to an increase in sales of deer and elk tags, the department’s finances are in good shape, Schriever said. The fee increase also gave the department some funding to work on providing access to private land.

That, in combination with what he said are the state’s good hunting and fishing opportunities, comes more expectations from the public. Schriever said that is where the stretch part of his mantra comes in. He plans to lead the department in a way that expands its ability to take advantage of new technology to advance both its biological and social science gathering.

“The strength of our platform is science-based management and we are really solid on biological science and we are going to get better at social science because we do manage people and wildlife. If you manage people you have to understand them and their desires and that is social science,” he said. “We want to enhance our social science and how that helps the commission make decisions and we want to stretch in public involvement and our commitment to inform the public.”

To do that, he said the department is striving to use all the popular social media platforms to communicate with the public and to make sure it does a good job of listening to the public through surveys. He said people sometimes don’t trust survey results. To combat that he wants to bring in more experts.

“Our plans right now are to partner with higher education, specifically the University of Idaho, in adding some third-party capacity,” he said. “If what the survey shows doesn’t align with a person’s particular thinking, ‘the survey must be wrong.’ Therefore it is easy to criticize. We want to make sure the public sees that as coming from someone with a high degree of expertise, more so than we have internally at the Fish and Game Department.”

His goal as director will be to continue to guide the department in its mandate to preserve, protect and perpetuate the state’s wildlife. He said the state has done a good job of that in the past and it remains one of the best places in the nation for people interested in hunting, fishing, trapping and wildlife viewing.

“Idaho is really one of the last best places. We are unique and we are special and I hope folks understand we work hard to maintain that.”

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