Predator hunters for the environment

Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife has protected a lot of Western land and species. It’s also killed a lot of coyotes (and can’t wait to go after some wolves).

  • Kevin Smith, a member of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife-Idaho, holds a cougar he shot in Owyhee County

  • Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife founder Don Peay, left, and former Utah Jazz great Karl Malone with an Alaskan grizzly

  • Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, at a presentation of a check for $1 million from Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife for the purchase of wildlife habitat near Salt Lake City

  • An SFW habitat restoration project near Holden, Utah

  • Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife-Idaho Board Chairman Scott Allan, with his two sons, and a wolf he shot in Northwest Territories while hunting sheep

  • Bob Wharff with a pronghorn he shot near Evanston, Wyoming

  • Winter on the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming

  • A Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife-Idaho rally in Boise wrapped up the petition drive to get wolves delisted in Idaho. Gov. Butch Otter spoke and promised "to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself"

  • Participants in the Predator Derby pose with their harvest


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SFW has come out strongly for maintaining the feed grounds. In 2006, Wharff and others claimed that the National Elk Refuge had underfed the wintering elk the year before and winter mortalities were unacceptably high. In December of that year, SFW and local ranchers and outfitters gathered to create “Hay Day,” a citizens’ solution to the alleged mismanagement of the Refuge.

The group gathered 60 tons of hay and delivered it to the refuge, where it was accepted by Reiswig and his boss, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Mitch King. The rally included a police escort for the hay convoy, a group recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, and an appearance by Wyoming state Sen. Kit Jennings of Casper, who is credited with the “Hay Day” concept.

“We did have some added mortality last year,” Reiswig says, “not a lot, but some. And then SFW rushed forward and said we were trying to starve the elk, and they had the Hay Day. It was a publicity stunt for SFW, and it worked well for them. Meanwhile, of course, the rest of us are still here trying to deal with these real problems.

“I’m a big supporter of powerful sportsmen’s organizations, and I’m hoping that SFW can lead their members to a more conservationist view of the world, rather than just throwing out hay bales or whatever.”

But so far, Reiswig notes, SFW has not addressed very many wildlife concerns in Wyoming. “They have shied away from habitat protection, for example, and with some of the company they keep, I sometimes wonder whether they actually represent the interests of sportsmen,” he says.

Then he offers an example: “Right now, we have millions of acres of public land with mule deer and antelope on it, but elk are barred from ever going there. Instead, they are kept on these postage stamps (the feed grounds), time bombs for disease. The stock growers are not economically powerful, but they have political power, and they have kept the fish and game from buying any more winter range.

“We definitely need a powerful sportsmen’s group here. Maybe someday SFW will become more sophisticated.”

A drive from Boise to Marsing shows a fantastic transition. The rich farmland of the Snake River Plain is disappearing under a tide of new subdivisions, from the very high-end, gated-and-landscaped developments with names like The Overlake, to a forest of close-set dwellings called Hubble Homes, purchased by the square foot. The stores sell phone cards, chilis, horchada, catering to the thousands of Hispanics who came here to work huge expanses of apple and apricot and pear orchards and sweet onions and melons, and stayed on to build the houses and start businesses. Few of these new immigrants hunt or fish.

It’s a world that strikes terror into the heart of many a sportsman. Idaho cities are full of New Westerners, mountain biking, climbing in gyms, indifferent to or respectful of predators, and disdainful of blood sports. Worst of all, they are probably open to referendums that would impose their progressive ideas on a dwindling population of people they regard as hayseeds.

As in 1993 Utah, the Idaho Legislature seems to have little respect, and little money, for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. State wildlife managers, not wanting to alienate their best friends, the hunters, have kept liberal seasons on mule deer, even as the herds decline and the kind of trophy bucks that inspire some hunters to vote for roadless areas and habitat protection disappear.

Chuck Middleton, a livestock-feed salesman and past president of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, says that southeast Idaho’s mule deer herds — once renowned for massive trophy bucks found in challenging and isolated terrain — are in trouble. “They left the mule deer season open so long they got the biggest kill in history, and ruined our best trophy area in the state,” he says.

The stage was set for SFW-Idaho, under the direction of the politically savvy and well-connected Nate Helm, to take the lead. And politically, the group has clout. Less brash than Don Peay, Helm has written measured statements supporting the delisting of the wolf as an endangered species. He has stopped short of the vehemence of Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who declared that all but 100 of the state’s wolves should be killed and that he was prepared “to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself.”

Under Helm’s direction, SFW purchased a ranch near Arco that was slated to become a high-fenced shooting operation where clients could kill buffalo and elk. Already prime mule deer habitat, the ranch has been improved with plantings of native bitterbrush and the development of water sources for deer and other wildlife, including sage grouse. It’s the kind of project that should have brought the group wide acclaim, especially since Idaho sportsmen have recently been fighting for new laws restricting the high-fence trophy shooting industry (and have criticized SFW for not taking a stronger stand on the issue).

But Idaho has been more challenging for SFW, in political terms, than Utah or Wyoming. For one thing, SFW’s critics are more outspoken here. “Our hunting community is totally opposed to any increase in the number of tags for sale,” said Kent Marlor of the Idaho Wildlife Federation. “Once you go down that road, you are headed for an elitist model of hunting that nobody here wants.”

For Chuck Middleton of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, a longtime partner of SFW, the group’s record in Idaho has been disappointing. The Idaho Sportsmen’s Caucus Advisory Council includes 31 wildlife and hunting groups, Middleton explains. “And SFW is the only sportsman’s group in the state that is not on it. They were the only wildlife organization to vote no to a fee increase to support Idaho Fish and Game, because they want Fish and Game to have no power,” he says. “They want the power like they have in Utah, where they can just go to the Legislature and demand what they want.”

Other Idahoans — including Jerry Conley, who was director of Idaho Fish and Game from 1980 to 1996 — say that SFW poses a real danger to the kind of wildlife management that has been so successful over the past decades in restoring and maintaining big game and other species. “Their solutions are to take all the money and kill the coyotes, the wolverines, the mountain lions,” Conley says. “They haven’t had a positive thought in years. In the long run, I don’t think you can sustain a group just on negativity. But in the short run, they are causing problems for our wildlife professionals, who are trying to do a good job, independent of politics.”

It is an early dusk at the Homedale Rod and Gun Club shooting range, about 10 miles out of Marsing, along the highway that leads over a low sagebrush and timber pass and onto the vastness of the Owyhee Basin. The predator derby entrants are slow to come in, and the cold settles down. Somebody unloads wood from the back of a pickup and starts a fire in the burn barrel, and pretty soon everyone is gathering closer to it, talking about a recent mountain lion attack in California and about elk hunting, from one side of Idaho to the other and up again to the timber country of the far north Idaho panhandle.

It’s been an unsuccessful day out on the sagebrush steppes, and there are only two coyotes brought in, one very small. Someone says they saw a bobcat at daybreak but couldn’t get a shot off. No one is drinking beer, nobody smoking a cigarette. Nobody mentions the cold, because most of them have been out in the weather since the night before, and most have been out in the weather, at work and at play, for their whole lives. They know how to dress for it, and mostly, they love it, men and women and children. They’re almost a different species from the climate-controlled, screen-obsessed masses of American society.

A boy of about 14 tells me how he has a place near here that is his favorite, and he points to a ridge, just now in full darkness, to the southwest. “If I could, I’d just stay up there and live,” he said, “go hunting every day. I don’t like living in town.” Later he will ask me what kind of rifle I shoot, and whether I think it would be fun to hunt coyotes with a machine gun. I think about that one for a second, and then answer, “Yeah, I think it would.” Which is the truth. The group is getting restless and tired, beginning to talk of home and supper. The two-coyote team is talking about what they will win. “Course,” somebody remarks from the burn barrel, “somebody might pull in here with a dozen before time’s up.” A coyote actually howls not too far away.

A big pickup, an ATV in the back, comes rumbling in, and people step out to greet the team. It’s Layne Bangerter and Mike Svedin, and they are loaded down with a harvest of coyotes.

One after another the dogs come out of the back of the truck, to mounting excitement from the other entrants. Nate Helm looks relieved; an absence of kills would have made the derby seem less than successful, especially in the photos taken for SFW and the sponsors of the contest. The coyotes hit the gravel, lined up, 13 of them, every shape and size, from yearlings to grizzled adults.

Some were clearly taken last night; they are as stiff as frozen roadkill. The Helm children and other youngsters gather to study them; one little boy jumps back and forth across the line of coyotes, overcome with excitement. The animals are shot up, bloody and matted and twisted, and they have been ruptured inside; a thick, vinegary death reek rises from them, even in the cold. The children note this. “They stink!” one little boy shouts. An adult explains, “They have been shot up some.”

Bangerter is standing at the fiery barrel, windburned, relaxed in a heavy camouflage coat, happy. “You just have to know how to hunt them,” he explains, without condescension, in response to a question of how they took so many when so few other hunters took any. He tells a quick story of bringing in four coyotes at once to the call, the animals spread out in the sagebrush at different ranges, and managing to take all four down, shooting a scoped AR-15 rifle.

“I felt pretty good about that,” he says, downplaying the skill that it must have taken.

It’s late, and everybody helps haul the coyotes over on the pavement in front of the shooting range, while Helm works to hang a sign for the Sportsman’s Warehouse, one of the derby’s sponsors, as a backdrop. The photos don’t take long — a low wall of dead coyotes, blaring banners, a group of outdoorsmen who look like they’ve had a good day.

Later, I will read something in the SFW magazine that will stay with me, in a story called “The Spirit of the Wild, explained by a common man,” by Neal Christopher, SFW-New Mexico:

About halfway up the mountain for the second time, I stopped to take a break. With my heart pounding and out of breathe (sic) it hit me like a ton of elk meat. I didn’t know what it was at first, but after I fell to my knees I realized, it’s what Ted Nugent talks about. It was the Spirit of the Wild. It hit me so deep in my soul, I stopped and prayed to Lord All Mighty. I sat on the ground and talked to him like an old friend I hadn’t seen in years.

I didn’t ask him for strength to carry more meat off the mountain or thank him for the elk I had just killed. Instead, I gave him thanks for my family and friends. I thanked him for the opportunity to live in country where I was free to roam the woods as I choose… .

I asked him to make sure that sometime in their hunting career, every person that sets foot in the woods feels exactly what I felt in my heart at that moment. (At that moment in time my trophy was not the rack or the meat, it was merely existing in rough country.)

Hal Herring has written for High Country News since 1998. He is a contributing editor at Field and Stream and an editor at large for the Internet newsmagazine New West.

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