Chaos reigns in Idaho wildlife agency

 

In Idaho, the state Fish and Game Commission is almost a hallowed institution. Its history extends back to the 1930s, when a national committee led by writer and conservationist Aldo Leopold advanced a management formula devised to protect wildlife from the political whims of the day. Voters adopted Leopold's plan by approving a citizen's initiative to create a commission, which now oversees the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Though the governor-appointed commission has its critics, it was designed to endure attacks without giving in - and it has earned a reputation for doing just that. "To a large extent, it's been wildly successful," says Jim Peek, a biologist at the University of Idaho.

The state's hunting and fishing constituency has been known to rise to its defense. When, in an unprecedented move, former Gov. Phil Batt asked the commission to resign to make way for a commission of his own choosing, protesters set up a microphone and picketed outside his office.

But when the commission supported the breaching of the four salmon-blocking dams on the lower Snake River last spring, some critics said it had gone too far to fulfill its lawful duty: to preserve and protect the state's wildlife.

"We were a little bit shocked," says Greg Nelson of the Idaho Farm Bureau, a group opposed both to breaching dams and strict endangered-species recovery efforts.

Now, nearly a year later, the controversy surrounding that decision still lingers in the halls of the state legislature, where development and conservation forces are waging a battle over the soul of the department. If the more conservative elements of the Republican-dominated legislature get their way, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game will return to an era when state wildlife agencies produced game and fish populations so that the state's hunters and fishermen could skim the surplus. Some are asking for just that.

"We would like to see the department put more wealth, time and energy into elk, deer, game birds and coldwater trout," says Ed Lindahl, a retired army officer who leads a group called Concerned Sportsmen of Idaho. It's only fair, he says, because license sales make up half of the department's budget and it receives no general funding from state taxpayers.

Biologist Peek counters that this approach is "1950s style," a time when hunters made up a more significant portion of the state's population and before ecology was well understood. Today, state wildlife agencies have begun to serve more than their traditional "hook and bullet" constituencies and in Idaho, the department has developed a growing non-game program that's concerned with songbirds, predators and endangered species. The state also runs an acclaimed nature center in Boise, but funding for all of these programs is threatened.

"They're tearing it apart," says John Gahl of the fish and game department's information and education division. "It's a pretty miserable place to work right now."

Though the fish and game department, which is supported by license fees and federal wildlife grants, asked the legislature to help dig the department out of the red, it may leave the legislative session with less than it started with. Embattled Director Steve Mealey had drawn fire for working too closely with development interests and telling department biologists to keep quiet on the salmon issue, and on March 4, the commission fired him in a 4-3 vote. Now he vows to sue and the legislature has responded by killing a license-fee hike requested by the department and many hunting groups. It would have been the first across-the-board price hike since the mid-1980s. "How often do you get user groups advocating for a self tax?" asks Kent Laverty of the Idaho Wildlife Federation.

Also controversial is a bill pushed by Republican House Speaker Bruce Newcomb. It would create an Office of Threatened and Endangered Species under the umbrella of the governor's office, perhaps jeopardizing the state's share of federal wildlife dollars. That would free the commission from creating recovery plans for species such as bull trout and other species considered for listing.

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne hasn't endorsed the legislation, but his spokesman says creating a special endangered species office could give the department more time to focus on game species.

Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus disputes this. "This legislature seems to have no reluctance whatsoever to snub their nose at the will of the people," he says. "They've taken all the authority and money away under the guise of dealing with threatened and endangered species."

Observers in Idaho say the reasons for the backlash against the department are clear.

"What's happened lately is a reaction to the salmon policy and the legislature trying to get control of the fish and game department," says the Wildlife Federation's Laverty.

The department's supporters say revenue shortfalls have already sent Idaho Fish and Game on a downhill slide. Revenues from license sales have dropped since 1996, which caused the department to lay off 30 full-time staffers and half of its summer field staff.

Peek says the department is experiencing the inevitable growing pains that occur when the numbers of hunters and fishers - the traditional constituency - decline.

"There is a quantum change in wildlife management these days," Peek says, and game species are no longer the priority. "A lot of people see that as a threat."

* Dustin Solberg, HCN assistant editor

You can contact ...

* Jerry Mallet, acting director, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Box 25, Boise, ID 83707 (208/334-4885);

* Greg Nelson, Idaho Farm Bureau, P.O. Box 167, Boise, ID 83701 (208/342-2688).

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