As the start of a new fiscal year draws closer (July 1), Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) director Cal Groen is confident his department will be able to handle the challenges to come.  Unlike other state agencies, IDFG is completely self-funding, so it didn’t fall victim to the budget axe in this year’s legislative session.

“The state doesn’t give us anything.  We’re the true user fee outfit in the state government,” Groen told IdahoReporter.com.  “About half of our revenue comes from hunters and fishermen, and the other half from federal sources directly tied to hunting and fishing excise taxes.”

While the down economy has hurt many segments of Idaho’s public and private sectors, to one extent, it has benefitted IDFG.  As more families choose “staycations” over vacations, more people are taking up fishing.  “Overall, we’re up in fishing … we’ve had good steelhead fishing trips and seasons, good salmon seasons.  You look at connecting youth to the outdoors, and at fishing around urban areas, people are excited to go fishing, so we’re seeing a pick up there,” said Groen.

The downside is that non-resident deer and elk hunting license sales have dropped off.  Groen said the department surveyed hunters from other states to find out why they weren’t coming back to Idaho.  “The main concern was wolves, the second was unfair pricing … our non-residents pay a lot, and our residents pay little … and the third was the economy.”

In 2007, a fee increase was put completely on non-resident licenses and tags, which was the cause of some animosity, but IDFG is working on ways to mitigate that burden a bit for out-of-staters.  One way being considered is to allow non-residents to use their deer or elk tags for bear, mountain lion, or wolves as well.

Still, the budget is tight, and the burden at this time is being shouldered entirely by hunters and fishermen.  Groen thinks it’s time for everyone else in the state who enjoys the outdoors and wildlife to step up and help pull the wagon.  He said he’d like to be able to issue “conservation licenses” at $10 apiece. He said that “90 percent of our wildlife is not hunted or fished, and yet, by law we are charged with managing that wildlife.  We talked about a conservation license last year.  It’s a simple concept; if you use a Fish and Game wildlife management area or facility, you need to have either a hunting license, fishing license, trapping license, or a conservation license.”

As for whether Idaho will be able to have a wolf season this year, Groen is optimistic there as well.  “We’ve played by the rules.  We have a number of units where our elk need help, so we need that balance,” said Groen.  “I’m predicting we’re going to have a season.  I think we were very successful to have the first wolf hunt in the lower 48 states; we harvested 188 wolves and it was orderly.  We want to continue that and manage, ‘cause our elk need the help in certain areas.”

Earlier in the week, a federal judge in Montana heard arguments from both sides of the wolf management issue.  Groups including the Defenders of Wildlife argued that wolf numbers throughout the Northern Rockies region were not sufficiently high enough to consider the species recovered.  Groen disagrees wholeheartedly.  “We started (the program in the mid-90s) by saying let’s have 10 packs, 100 wolves in each state.  These same groups agreed to it and urged us to do that.  Now we’re talking 1,700 wolves in the region.  It’s disingenuous.  We need to manage wolves, but unfortunately, they’re being managed more in the courts right now, and I don’t like that.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages animals on the Endangered Species List (ESL), estimates there are 843 gray wolves in Idaho, 524 in Montana, 320 in Wyoming, and scattered numbers in Washington and Oregon.  The estimate of the total population in the Northern Rockies is more than 1,700.  Wolves in Idaho and Montana were removed from the ESL in 2009; wolves in Wyoming are still federally protected.

“Look at the depredations (damage to elk and deer herds); we’ve seen a measurable increase since 2005, when we were at that 500 (wolf count) level,” Groen said.  “That’s five times the recovery number.  It’s really accelerated since we were at that 500 level.”