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Emails indicate Idaho wildlife management influenced by wealthy, politics

Idaho Fish & Game Director Virgil Moore, center, is flanked by Commissioner Mark Doerr of Twin Falls, right, and commissioner Will Naillon, left, at the panel's May meeting in Coeur d'Alene.  (Rich Landers)
Idaho Fish & Game Director Virgil Moore, center, is flanked by Commissioner Mark Doerr of Twin Falls, right, and commissioner Will Naillon, left, at the panel's May meeting in Coeur d'Alene. (Rich Landers)

HUNTING -- Idaho sportsman are becoming wary of wealthy individuals who appear to be working to monopolize hunting access and wildlife management.

The billionaire Wilks brothers of Texas have caught attention for purchasing and closing public access to 172,000 acres of Potatch timberland.

And scrutiny is increasing on efforts to pump up the big-game auction tag program to boost the opportunities for hunters to whom money is not an issue.

Sportsmen have sought access to email accounts for Idaho lawmakers to track the influence in the auction tag issue.  The results are interesting, as you'll see in the roundup below by Lewiston Tribune outdoor writer Eric Barker:

Communications acquired by an Idaho wildlife group show a wealthy

southern Idaho businessman who favors auctioning coveted hunting tags

successfully advocated for two Idaho Fish and Game commissioners who

opposed the idea to lose their jobs.

 

The cache of emails also shows a growing animosity and turf war between

the commission and key legislators as they clashed over auction tags —

with the commission saying the tags give wealthy hunters an unfair

advantage and legislators saying they would raise much-needed revenue

for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

 

The Idaho Wildlife Federation acquired hundreds of pages of emails from

a handful of state legislators, Gov. C.L “Butch” Otter’s staff and

Pocatello businessman Doug Sayer through the state’s Public Records Law.

The group said the emails show the state’s system of wildlife management

is under threat from monied interests and political influence.

 

“Idahoans enjoy a world-class wildlife resource thanks to our

independent fish and game commission,” said Kahle Becker with the Idaho

Wildlife Federation. “The strong-arm politics we have unveiled are a

direct threat to Idaho sportsmen and the hunting heritage we have built

over decades.”

 

In a message sent to Otter’s chief of staff, David Hensley, on March 16,

Sayer writes about his frustration with the commission and Idaho Fish

and Game Department Director Virgil Moore for not being more receptive

to auction tags as a source of revenue for wildlife management. He

suggests a “change of chemistry” is needed on the commission as well as

a change of leadership at the department.

“I must recommend to you that we do not reappoint Mark Doerr or Will

Naillon when their term expires in June. It would be unfair of me to

complain and not offer a possible solution, I know a couple of

candidates that I feel would do a better job and I would also be willing

to sit on a search committee if needed,” he wrote. “It is a difficult

and severe problem but when faced with something like this, one also

needs to look at the top of the organization and wonder if that

individual is part of the problem. In this case I believe Virgil and

especially his deputy director are in fact promoting the culture that we

now experience.”

 

Sayer, who did not return messages seeking comment, is chief business

officer for Premier Technology Inc. and chairman of the Wild Sheep

Foundation. Along with lobbyist John Watts of Boise, Sayer authored

successful legislation in 2010 that gives the commission authority to

issue up to a dozen auction tags, three each for deer, elk and antelope

and one each for moose, elk and bighorn sheep. The measure was carried

in the Legislature by Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, and Rep. Mike Moyle,

R-Star.

 

Sayer’s email was sent shortly after the seven-member commission

declined to implement auction tags. About two months later, Otter

declined to reappoint Doerr and Naillon to second terms on the

commission but said they could reapply. They did not. Both men have said

they lost their voluntary jobs because of their refusal to bend to the

will of people like Sayer, Bair and Moyle.

 

“It’s not a real surprise that that was going on,” Naillon said of the

political pressure exposed in the email. “I think it just really proved

everything that everybody thought.”

 

Doerr said he and Naillon declined to reapply for their jobs because it

was clear it would have been fruitless.

 

Jon Hanian, a spokesman for Otter, maintains Naillon and Doerr were not

fired from their positions but instead chose not to reapply. He did not

directly respond to a question about Otter’s stance on the commission’s

refusal to approve auction tags. But he did offer support for Moore.

 

“The governor strongly supports, and has utmost confidence in, the

current leadership at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game,” he said.

 

During the most recent legislative session, Moyle and Bair pushed a bill

that would have mandated the commission to issue auction tags by

changing language from “may” to “shall” in the existing legislation

giving the commission authorization to approve tags. The bill never made

it out of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, which is

chaired by Bair.

 

Doerr said it’s clear the legislators and Sayer were trying to pressure

the commission to do something they knew would be difficult to

accomplish through lawmaking. Hunters in the state repeatedly told the

commission at public meetings they oppose auction tags.

 

“The commission is not a tool or arm of the Legislature. We are not

required to follow their position because they deem it to be so,” Doerr

said. “If the Legislature disagrees with the commission’s position on

any issue they have ability to introduce legislation and make the change

they desire. This whole issue was about auction tags and as the emails

show, Sen. Bair did not have the votes in his own committee to move it

to the floor of the Senate.”

 

According to the emails, comments Doerr submitted to legislators over

Senate Bill 1344 — which required the fish and game department to

outsource its annual lottery for high-quality hunting tags — angered

legislators. In his comments, Doerr talks about the intent of the 1938

initiative that created the fish and game commission and department to

insulate game management from political influence. The initiative gave

the commission authority to administer policy.

 

“With that in mind I ask you, how many laws need to be written by the

Legislature, restricting commission authority to administer the policy,

before you have effectively nullified the commission and the voters? At

some point, after a number of new laws, you have overridden the citizens

initiative and without asking their opinion, rendered their collective

voting, 78 (percent) of voters in 1938, irrelevant,” he wrote.

 

Bair, in an email sent to Sayer in the fall of 2015, referenced the

clash between the commission and some lawmakers over auction tags.

 

“So, currently, I have never seen relationships so tenuous and stressed

between the Legislature and (fish and game). The department has decided

to take a hard policy line this coming session, knowing well that they

will never get the fee increases they desire by taking such hard line

positions,” he wrote. “In fact, last week as they reviewed their goals

with us, they did not even mention fee increases. I guess they have

chosen power of policy over fee increases.”



Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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