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Sports >  Outdoors

Director defends Idaho Fish and Game’s handling of 2021 whitetail deer hunting

White-tailed deer buck.  (IDFG/courtesy)
White-tailed deer buck. (IDFG/courtesy)
By Eric Barker The Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – Idaho Fish and Game director Ed Schriever defended his agency and staff Tuesday against a group of north-central Idaho hunters who claim it was less than transparent about last year’s outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease and related nonresident hunting tag refunds.

During the summer of 2021, an outbreak of the disease killed an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 white-tail deer spread across lower elevation areas of the Clearwater Region. Game Management Unit 11A was hit particularly hard and the department, after receiving requests from outfitters, offered nonresident hunters in the unit refunds. Unlike resident hunters, nonresidents must state where they intend to hunt when they purchase a tag and stick to that unit. In all, the department processed 99 refunds.

Former commissioners Dan Blanco and Northern Idaho Whitetails Forever President Bill Samuels, both of Orofino, charged that the department hid the refunds from the general public and said if the refunds had been widely known, hunters would have been alarmed and would have advocated for shorter 2022 hunting seasons in 11A and other units in the region.

During a presentation about the issue at an Idaho Fish and Game Commission meeting in Lewiston, Deputy Director Jim Fredericks told commissioners that granting tag refunds or rain checks, even when they occur in large numbers and in response to environmental conditions, is a routine administrative procedure.

“A very notable example of that was the large wildfire in Unit 54 in the Magic Valley region in 2020. The department granted 352 rain checks and nearly 100 refunds for deer and elk hunts.”

In response to last year’s die off, Fredericks said the department recommended and the commission approved the cancellation of 1,500 extra white-tail doe hunts in the Clearwater Region. Hunting seasons are set for two year periods and the adjustment was made in the middle of the 2021-22 cycle.

“These adjustments were done entirely in a transparent process that included extensive public involvement and information on proposals,” Fredericks said.

Schriever noted that leaders of Northern Idaho Whitetails Forever participated in that process and, as they have done in years past, advocated for shorter hunting seasons in the Clearwater Region. He said the groups used the dieoff to further make the case for shorter hunting seasons and said over the years the department and commission have considered their suggestions but have chosen not to implement them.

“It’s not that they’re not being heard or listened to,” he said. “It’s that the outcome they desire is not being implemented by the commission and therefore there’s frustration among those folks.”

At a public hearing on Monday, Blanco and Samuels asked that the commission reopen the 2023 season setting process and shorten white-tail hunting seasons. Schriever said that process doesn’t need to be reopened because it has not occurred. Big game hunting seasons for 2023 and 2024 will be set by the commission in March following a process in which the public can weigh in.

He rejected the idea that the department or commission acted wrongly in offering the refunds or in failing to publicize the refunds.

“There were assertions – you heard them last night – there was nefarious activity by this director, my staff and the commission and the words that were used were ‘blindsided,’ ‘tainted,’ ‘unprecedented lack of transparency.’ I would say all this has been quite transparent. All of this is standard operating procedure,” he said. “The issue of refunds or rain checks is one of customer service. It is not related to season setting. It is not something that is brought to the public to be scoped.”

Commissioners also heard an update on the state’s chronic wasting disease outbreak in unit 14. The disease was detected in a total of seven animals last fall – the first time it has been found in the state. Earlier this year, a deer that died of natural causes also tested positive for the disease and State Wildlife Manager Rick Ward said two hunter harvested deer taken from Unit 14 near Slate Creek this fall tested positive.

“Those deer came out of slate Creek which seems to be the hot spot for CWD. So that’s what we expected, not a surprise there,” Ward said.

Ward said there are too many hunters who are not aware that all deer and elk harvested in units 14 and 15 must be tested for CWD and that the heads and spinal columns of animals harvested in those units cannot be taken out of the units.

Also at the meeting, the commission approved the release of the State Wildlife Action Plan to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for review. The plan covers species that largely are not hunted and for which there is concern about their numbers or distribution. The commission also approved release of a draft management plan for fisher, wolverine and Canada lynx.

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