Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Legislators oppose wolf-control bill

Numerous issues addressed in town hall meeting

Express Staff Writer

District 26 legislators held a meeting at Ketchum City Hall last week to provide information and listen to the publicís views. Though Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, center, and Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, right, often disagreed with first-term Rep. Steven Miller, R-Fairfield, left, the three also exhibited a spirit of teamwork. Photo by Willy Cook

    During a town hall meeting Friday, all three local legislative representatives said they were inclined to vote against a bill that would establish a wolf-control board. However, none expressed opposition to the concept of state-sponsored wolf killing, and they said some sort of control mechanism is inevitable.
    “We almost have to have a management plan since [the federal government] turned it over to us,” said Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding. “We’ve got to manage them somehow.”
    The issue elicited the most heated discussion of the dozen or so topics addressed during a more than two-hour meeting in an almost packed Ketchum City Council chambers.
    House Bill 470, which is expected to be heard next week in the House Resources and Conservation Committee, would establish a five-member board and a wolf-control fund with annual payments of $110,000 from the livestock industry and $110,000 from the state’s fish and game fund. Gov. Butch Otter has proposed an additional $2 million appropriation for the fund in fiscal 2015.
    The bill’s sponsors have said they would like the state to kill about 500 wolves, leaving only a few more than the 150-wolf minimum established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep the animals off the endangered species list in Idaho.
    Several members of the public spoke up loudly when the issue was raised Friday, asking, “How can we stop this?” They did not receive a concrete answer.
    The District 26 representatives expressed concerns about the cost of the proposal. Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, pointed out that $2 million spent on 500 dead wolves equals $4,000 per wolf, which she compared to the $6,000 spent annually by the state on each school child.
    “Is this the best use of our money?” she asked.
    Stennett also said the bill would establish a precedent for using general-fund money on wildlife management without going through the Department of Fish and Game.
    “This is all very different from what we usually do for wildlife,” she said.
    Rep. Steven Miller, R-Fairfield, said he would probably vote against the bill unless it is changed to specify how and where the money would be spent.
    “I think there are a lot of holes in it,” he said.
    A member of the public asked the representatives to propose an amendment to the bill that would direct the state to gather information contained in existing studies on the effects of wolf predation on elk. The representatives said the bill had probably reached a stage at which amendments can no longer be added.
    Pro-wolf activists have opposed any state-sponsored killing of the animals. In a press release, Defenders of Wildlife representative Suzanne Stone contended that non-lethal control methods are more effective at keeping wolves away from livestock. Those methods include fladry, range riders, electric fencing and guard dogs.

We have a lot of issues that are generational issues.”
Rep. Steven Miller

    Stone said the Wood River Wolf Project in Blaine County has protected more than 25,000 sheep annually that graze on the Sawtooth National Forest, losing less than 25 sheep over six years–the lowest loss rate of livestock and wolves in the state.

Concealed weapons on campus
    Another issue that generated heated discussion at the meeting was a proposed bill that would guarantee the rights of students at colleges and universities to carry concealed weapons, provided they are licensed to do so.
    One member of the public argued that students have a right to self-defense, and by criminalizing that right, “you’re turning him into a felon.”
    Stennett said there have been no shooting incidents at Idaho colleges that indicate a need for student self-defense.
    Blaine County School District Interim Superintendent John Blackman asked whether the bill would apply to College of Southern Idaho’s Blaine County Center, which leases space from the district at the Community Campus building in Hailey.
    “What concerns me are the jurisdictional issues,” Blackman said. “I would hope that my constituencies would have a say in what happens on their campuses.”
    Stennett said such jurisdictional and constitutional questions would be addressed during hearings early this week before the Senate State Affairs Committee.
    She said she had received many letters of opposition to the bill from school officials.
    “They don’t know who will be carrying, and they’re really unnerved by this,” she said.
    She said her concerns include the cost of additional training required for campus security guards and the potential difficulty for law enforcement officers arriving at the scene of a reported shooter to determine who’s the perpetrator and who are students brandishing guns in self-defense.
    “There are a lot of pieces about what this looks like that don’t make things, in my opinion, safer,” she said.
    Miller said he thought a good case could be made both for and against the bill’s likely effects on school safety, and he was waiting to hear more debate on the issue before deciding how to vote.
    “I don’t think there’s any good, solid data,” he said. “I think it’s become an emotional debate, not a factual debate.”

Idaho Education Network mess
    Miller and Pence addressed a $14 million financial predicament involving the Idaho Education Network, a state program that provides Internet access to many Idaho schools, including Wood River High School, Silver Creek Alternative School and the high school at Carey School. The issue was also addressed in Stennett’s most recent constituent newsletter.
    Stennett reported that Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna went before the Joint Finance-Appropriation Committee requesting $14 million dollars to assure the continuation of broadband service to Idaho’s schools. Phone tax dollars that fund the program have been withheld since March while the federal contractor that administers the funding reviews the state’s contracting process.
    The contract was challenged by Syringa Networks, which submitted the lowest bid for the statewide contract, but was not awarded the job. Stennett reported that Luna told the Senate Education Committee that Idaho may have to refund more than $13 million if the contracting process is deemed to have been improper.
    “Most likely, we will get the money and we will be made whole,” Miller said. “But if we don’t get the money, the companies that installed [the systems] are going to start picking things up.”
Water projects
    Stennett and Miller offered opposing views on Otter’s proposal for a $15 million, one-time allocation to the state Department of Water Resources for six water supply improvement projects around the state.
    According to the Spokesman-Review, the proposal includes $4 million to acquire water rights and provide a reliable water supply to Mountain Home Air Force Base, $2 million to initiate environmental compliance and land exchange analysis for the Galloway Project, a proposed dam and reservoir on the Weiser River, $1.5 million for studies on enlarging Arrowrock Reservoir, and $2.5 million to begin studying the Island Park Reservoir enlargement project.
    The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the amount in late January as a supplemental appropriation for immediate funding.
    Stennett expressed skepticism about the projects, pointing out in her newsletter that the money requested was just for studies.
    “Dams are very difficult to build, they’re very expensive, and they require a lot of federal money, typically,” she said Friday.
    However, Miller contended that money spent on additional water storage would be a wise investment.
    “All of these things work together to make our agriculture work,” he said. “There’s enough water in Idaho, but we don’t have the storage and we’re depleting the aquifer as well.
    “One of the shortcomings of a legislature is that they look two or four or six years down the road. We have a lot of issues that are generational issues.”

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