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For the week of Oct. 6, 1999 through Oct. 12, 1999

Fish and Game Commission shelves predator reduction plan

Commissioners to examine predator reduction in Selway wilderness

Express Staff Writer

BOISE-The Idaho Fish and Game Commission has for the time being abandoned a proposed predator-reduction plan.

The seven-member commission made its decision by consensus on Thursday following a crowded and heated public hearing last Wednesday night.

However, the commission did decide to look into reducing predator populations in the Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness and to begin drawing up a statewide predator management plan.

Predators generally include bears, coyotes, cougars and birds of prey.

Following a report from its wildlife bureau chief, the commission concluded that a plan to significantly reduce predator numbers statewide would cost too much money and require poisoning and year-round hunting seasons—methods that are not considered sound wildlife management practices.

The large-scale predator-reduction plan was conceived at the commission’s early-September meeting in Sandpoint by Commissioner Roy Moulton, a Driggs-based lawyer and the commission’s Upper Snake Region representative. Its purpose was to allow game species of mule deer and elk, and possibly upland birds such as sage grouse, to recover.

Wildlife bureau chief Steven Huffaker told the commission, however, that mule deer populations statewide are healthy and elk populations are only waning in the Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness and Middle Fork of the Salmon River area. Sage grouse populations are dropping, he said, because of habitat loss, not because of predation.

During the public comment session on Wednesday evening, the 100-seat capacity of the commissioners’ meeting chamber was filled, and people spilled into the hallways. Ex-Fish and Game commissioners, Fish and Game personnel, ex-state legislators, wildlife advocates and hunters all turned out to lend an ear or speak their minds.

An imaginary line was drawn, hunters on one side and animal advocates on the other, and one after another stood and contradicted the other’s testimony.

Amid this charged atmosphere, wildlife advocates applauded a woman’s testimony. When told to stop by commissioners, the woman became angry and stormed out of the meeting.

"We would just urge that you reconsider the proposed predator plan," Idaho Wildlife Federation spokesman Jack Fisher told the commission. "This is not in the best interest of solid wildlife management."

Ketchum resident and Idaho Animal Advocates representative Marilyn Martin presented the commission with 400 petition signatures from the Ketchum area asking that efforts toward a widespread predator reduction plan not be continued.

"Idaho wildlife is a treasure and should be managed accordingly," she said. "We urge you to preserve, protect and defend all Idaho wildlife."

Defenders of Wildlife representative Susan Lafferty of Boise told the commission that one component of the ecosystem cannot be altered without another being changed, not always beneficially. And predators are an obvious competitor for the same resource hunters are after, she pointed out.

Most hunters at the meeting said they had seen deer and elk populations decline in the past 10 years, and blame predators.

Boise resident Dick Kent, an avid hunter who recently retired from the Army, said he has hunted all over the world. He said he always dreamed of the day he’d be able to hunt the wild lands of Idaho with its abundant deer and elk.

On a recent trip to the White Cloud Mountains, Kent said, he saw a lot of wolf scat but no elk. In subsequent hunting trips, he said, he’s not seen one elk.

"I want to commend the commission on a well thought-out plan," he said,

Ed Hedges, an ex-Idaho legislator and hunter, told the commissioners, "In Alaska you can kill five wolves before you have to buy a license. That’s where you should start (with the plan)."

Huffaker told the commission that a reduction of predators, including cougars and black bear (the bear prey on infant elk), in the Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness could give wildlife managers a further idea of how elk are affected by predators. The commission told Huffaker to research further the possibility of reducing predator populations in that area through increased hunting opportunities.

The Wood River Valley and Fish and Game’s Magic Valley Region have healthy elk herds and would not be affected by such area-specific policies.

According to Huffaker, reducing predator populations in the Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness vicinity will initially help certain dwindling elk populations to recover, but those populations will not stay healthy in the long run unless habitat is restored. It would be a short-term solution to a long-term problem, he said.

Habitat in the wilderness has aged, and young plant life, which provide good forage for elk, are not prospering beneath the aging, climax forest canopy, Huffaker said in an interview. He said it’s been close to 100 years since the habitat in that area has been renewed either by logging or fire.

He stressed that "when you’ve got healthy habitat, predation still goes on, but the prey base is able to prosper despite the losses to predation."

It is not within Fish and Game’s power to make habitat decisions. Fish and Game can only make recommendations to the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.

In addition to furthering efforts to reduce predators in the Selway/Bitterroot area, the commission voted unanimously to reduce elk hunting there by one third next season.

Huffaker told the commission that before a predator-reduction plan can be drawn up, the state will need an overall predator management policy. Toward that end, Huffaker recommended that the commission use as a foundation a predator management plan recently adopted by the state of Utah.

Utah’s policy was put into place on Aug. 16 after two years of research and public comment. It allows the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources—the state’s equivalent of Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game—to take steps toward reducing predator populations when they are "believed to be inhibiting the ability of the Division to attain management objectives for other wildlife populations."

The policy lists three methods by which predator populations can be reduced. Listed in order of preference, they are: Licensed or permitted hunters will take predators in the seasons provided, the division’s personnel will "systematically take (kill, poison or capture) a specified number of predators in a selected geographic area, division personnel will take predators [in unspecified amounts] in a selected geographic area."

In the interview, Huffaker said Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game staff will begin drafting a policy for Idaho. He said it will be a long process, and it could be two years or more until the department has something to return to the commission for review.

The hearing on the proposed predator plan was a preliminary one, and all Fish and Game decisions go through a lengthy public hearing process before being voted on by the commission, Huffaker explained.

He said the proposed state-wide policy, Selway predator reductions and decrease in elk tags sold in the Selway area will be put through a gamut of statewide public hearings in March.


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