Perhaps no issue has been as controversial among Idaho hunters as the idea of “auction tags,” which would give the highest bidder access to some of the most sought-after hunts in the state.
It has led to a major shake-up on the Idaho Fish and Game Commission, behind-the-scenes arm-twisting and a major division within Idaho’s hunting community.
At the bottom is a fundamental dispute about how hunting rights should work.
One side sees Idaho as the last true bastion of the “North American Model” under which game animals and the right to hunt them are shared by all, and each person has an equal shot at a coveted hunt, regardless of their means.
“Idaho is unique in the Western states,” said former Fish and Game Commissioner Mark Doerr. “We are one of the only states that does not have a major auction tag program. It’s still a state where a hunter can buy a tag over the counter and go hunt.”
The other side thinks the state is leaving lots of money on the table by refusing to issue more auction tags, money that could be used to maintain the health of game populations.
“If (wealthy hunters) can contribute, I think we need to give them the opportunity,” said Doug Sayer, chief business officer of Premier Technology and a longtime advocate of expanding auction tags.
The debate over auction tags came to a head during the January legislative session, when Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, introduced a bill that would have forced the Fish and Game Commission to issue a number of auction tags.
A bill enacted several years ago allowed the Fish and Game Commission to issue about a dozen auction tags per year, but each year the commission has decided against the idea. Bair’s and Moyle’s bill would have changed language that said the commission “may” issue tags, to language saying the commission “shall” issue such tags, forcing their hand.
That bill didn’t make it far, in part because of vocal opposition from sportsmen’s groups and few indications that lawmakers could expect support from the Fish and Game Commission.
A few months later, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter decided not to reappoint Fish and Game commissioners Will Naillon, of Challis, and Doerr, of Kimberly, a move that was widely seen as an effort to push them out because of their stance on auction tags.
“That’s most certainly the main issue,” Naillon said.
Otter refused to comment.
Naillon said he asked two questions of any proposal put to him as a commissioner: “What is good for wildlife?” and “How does this benefit the average sportsman?” And while he saw that a few auction tags could raise lots of money for wildlife conservation, he worries it could also be the first step down a road that leads Idaho away from an equitable model of hunting access.
“It’s a small step, but it’s a step in the wrong direction,” he said.
Utah has enthusiastically embraced auction tags, and it now sells hundreds of them every year under its conservation permit program. The conservation permit program in Utah generated some $33 million between 2001 and 2014 for groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation which work to make sure game species are healthy.
Kenny Johnson, chief of the Administrative Services Section of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said the sale of auction tags has greatly benefited game management.
“The fear is you lose some public permits,” he said. “On the opposite end, (it’s) in trade for some of the stuff the state agencies don’t have resources for.”
The benefits can be very large for species such as bighorn sheep, Johnson said. With such a rare species, the state can only issue a few tags each year. So unless those tags fetch a hefty sum, there isn’t enough money for projects meant to help the species recover. But by auctioning off those tags, the state raises a lot more revenue.
“There are very few of those,” Johnson said. “They’re worth a lot on the open market.”
Sayer pointed out that many funds raised through auction tag sales are matched three-to-one with federal money collected through taxes on guns and ammunition.
“If you sell a bighorn sheep tag for $100,000, that can mean $400,000 for conservation projects,” he said.
Idaho auctions one bighorn sheep tag for a hunt near Hell’s Canyon each year, and Sayer sees it as a model for similar programs for moose, mountain goat and other big-game species.
“In my mind it’s a program that’s worked for almost three decades,” he said.
But where Johnson and Sayer see a success story in Utah, some sportsmen think issuing more auction tags could push Idaho toward a future in which hunting is a “rich man’s sport.”
Idaho State Bowhunters president Tad Sherman, who just returned from a bow-hunting trip during which his 11-year-old son bagged a deer, said hunting is an integral part of his family life. He typically gets tags for multiple species each year.
“It’s something I have the opportunity to do every year,” he said. “In Utah, you have to hope that you can draw a tag. You might be sitting three or five years waiting for a hunt.”
And for Sherman, that would mean missing out on opportunities to bond with his son. For him, hunting is really about spending time in camp with his family, exploring the woods with friends and putting meat on the table. If he get’s a trophy buck, that’s a good year, but it isn’t why he loves hunting.
Naillon too worries that moving toward more auction tags might fundamentally change Idaho hunting culture and the nature of game management.
“Idaho manages to get as many people out in the field that they can,” Naillon said. “Utah manages for trophy hunters.”
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