How much should hunters with ATVs be regulated?

 

The hunters stalked their game for hours, carefully taking note of scat and tracks the herd left behind. They hunted on foot through the West's backcountry wilds, through brush and over mountains. A rumble in the distance sounded like the characteristic clap of a Rocky Mountain thunderstorm. It spooked the elk. Over the hill emerged a firearm-clad off-road vehicle rider.

Many hunters contend they should be protected from noisy, ungulate-frightening machines when out seeking their prey. And in numerous states they are, with rules keeping hunters on ATVs tied to major roadways instead of backcountry paths. But ATV advocates want those restrictions changed, and across the West lawmakers continue to propose bills favoring motorized uses for hunting.

In Idaho, the issue is

coming to a head, where a back-and-forth on whether hunters can use ATVs to access wilderness is underway.

This spring, Idaho's Senate considered but ultimately tabled two bills that would have prevented Fish and Game from regulating off-highway vehicle hunters who use the brawn of a machine to reach their prey rather than hunting by foot or horse. The bills failed, but Fish and Game came back in July requesting public comment on a new rule that would impose motorized vehicle restrictions on trophy hunters (for moose, sheep and mountain goats) where the restrictions already apply to big game hunters (deer, elk and bear).

A 2002 regulation currently governs the state's motorized hunters. It prevents hunters from using the ATV trails that recreational off-roaders do in 31 hunting units south of the Salmon River. So hunters with OHVs are currently chained to roadways used by full-size automobiles while hunters that hike or ride horses have greater access to backcountry.

The shelved bills, 1015 and 1016, would have stripped Idaho Fish and Game's ability to regulate where hunters can drive their vehicles in a third of its 99 hunting units.

Lew Pence, a 70-year-old hunter from, Gooding, Idaho, voiced his concern and desire to keep the hunting woods quiet when he testified before Idaho's House and Senate resource committees in a February hearing on the bills: The real hunter did not hunt wildlife with vehicle use, he said.

While Fish and Game is currently taking comment on the proposed rule, an Idaho natural resources interim committee plans to explore solutions to the previously shelved bills. But too often, trying to troubleshoot a balance between non-motorized hunters and off-highway vehicle hunters is like spotting a gray wolf through the scope.

Non-motorized hunters wonder whether use of a vehicle to access game animals like elk and deer in the backcountry should be allowed under a "fair chase" ethic. They also argue technology takes the skill out of hunting. But advocates of ATV-based hunting say the vehicles are not a hunting aid like dogs or bait, just a means of getting to hunting grounds. So a few motorized vehicle hunters that act out are causing debate when most may be law-abiding ones.

But fish and game commissioners cite impacts to wildlife populations: Elk and deer were subject to greater harvest with more hunters in the backcountry.

The issue over motorized hunting is not new to the West; Idaho is simply the next locus of action where hunters must weigh in on the appropriateness of off-highway vehicles in the backcountry.

Other states have struggled with the same dilemma and also shelved proposals, leaving the matter unresolved as the number of OHV users increases.

In 2003, Nevada hunters traveling by foot blamed hunters on vehicles for dashed hunting opportunities and public land damage. A group in the state then proposed a regulation that would have prevented hunters and trappers carrying a hunting weapon from straying more than 25 yards off an established road.

That idea was pushed to the side. But the same arguments rose elsewhere like an ORV dust trail—hunters using off-road vehicle users were cast with blame over newly-dug trails on public lands. Individuals hunting by foot or on horse had their experience ruined by the resounding hum of an off-road vehicle chasing their carefully stalked prey away.

Complicating Idaho's debate is the ability of campers, landscape chasers and berry-pickers operating off-road vehicles recreationally to travel on trails and paths though hunters using those same vehicles cannot. The rules of the game aren't the same for all, and lawmakers remain mum on the topic.

Whether or not the new Fish and Game rule goes through, the issue won't be left in that dust—Idaho Conservation League conservation associate Brad Smith says the debate "seems to be kind of a perennial issue in the Idaho Legislature the last few years and I'm not certain how much longer it will go on until the legislature finally passes something."

Kimberly Hirai is an intern at High Country News.

Image of off-road vehicle rider courtesy marada.