Idaho Fish and Game gives thumbs down to three bills

Feb. 16—The Idaho Fish and Game Commission voted to oppose three bills Thursday that were recently introduced in the Idaho Legislature, including one that would make it harder for law enforcement officers to nab poachers on private property.

The seven-member commission was unanimous in its decision to give do-not-support ratings to a bill that would give highly coveted hunting tags for moose, mountain goats and bighorn sheep to outfitters who kill wolves and another that would make it more difficult for the Idaho Department of Agriculture to regulate the importation and movement of domestic elk that may have had exposure to chronic wasting disease.

But the decision over a bill that would close the open fields doctrine in Idaho and thereby bolster private property rights at the expense of enforcing poaching laws garnered more debate and ultimately produced a split decision — a rarity for the commission.

Goats for wolves

Under Senate Bill 1340, outfitters who fill a wolf tag will get a moose, mountain goat or bighorn sheep tag as a reward. Those tags are awarded by random drawings and the odds are long. The abundance of moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goats — known collectively as trophy species under Idaho game rules — is low compared to the number of deer and elk in the state. There are just 541 bull moose tags, 83 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep tags, 12 California bighorn sheep tags and 41 mountain goat tags offered up in controlled hunt drawings. None of them are reserved for outfitters but hunters who draw the tags can hire outfitters to guide them.

"Should Senate Bill 1340 be enacted there would be minimal tags left for non-outfitted hunters and the odds of drawing one of these few remaining tags would decrease further," said Ellary TuckerWilliams, legislative and community engagement coordinator for the department, during the commission's weekly conference call to discuss pending legislation. "In some areas it is likely that 100% of these highly coveted tags would go to outfitters. If the commission decided to provide additional tags above what was proposed by Fish and Game to satisfy the provisions of Senate Bill 1340, it would almost certainly result in overharvest of these three three species."

Idaho Fish and Game Director Jim Fredericks said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Doug Okuniewicz (R-Hayden), has agreed to pull the bill or amend it to avoid such consequences. However, noting the pace at which legislation can move this time of year, Fredericks recommended the commission take a position.

They agreed the bill is a bad idea.

"This just sounds like a can of worms that I don't think we want to even consider getting into," said Commissioner Ron Davies, of Clayton, in the Salmon River Region.

Game farm regulation

The commission also chose to oppose House Bill 536 that according to an Idaho Fish and Game analysis makes several changes to state law that ultimately weaken the Department of Agriculture's program designed to keep chronic wasting disease and other wildlife diseases from infecting the state's elk farms or from spreading to wild deer and elk populations. Again Fredericks said the sponsor, Rep. Jerald Raymond (R-Menan), has expressed willingness to pull or amend the bill to address some of the agency's concerns. But Fredericks advised the commission to take a position on the bill as written. They opted to give it a "do not support" rating.

Open fields

Senate Bill 1345, sponsored by Sen. Kelly Anthon (R-Burley), Sen. Jim Guthrie (R-McCammon) and Sen. James D. Ruchti (D-Pocatello) would prevent law enforcement officers, including Idaho Conservation officers, from entering private property without permission from the owner, a search warrant, probable cause of a crime or an emergency situation. The bill also has exceptions allowing offers to enter private property to dispatch wounded animals or to carry out their duties such as serving notices.

According to U.S. Supreme Court precedent established in the 1924 case Hester v. the U.S. and refined in later cases, unlike homes and their immediate surroundings, privately owned open fields and forests are not afforded protections against warrantless searches. Justices decided those sorts of properties do not adhere to the "persons, houses, papers and effects" language of the Fourth Amendment.

Several states have constitutions that do protect "open fields" from warrantless searches and others have passed laws that do so. Some of those laws were authored following cases in Tennessee in which game wardens installed game cameras on private land without warrants or permission in an effort to gather evidence against landowners whom they suspected of poaching.

TuckerWilliams told commissioners the department is concerned the bill would prevent Idaho conservation officers from doing their jobs and may incentivize poachers to operate on private property. Enforcement Chief Greg Wooten said the department's internal policy forbids officers from placing cameras on private land without permission or warrants. But he said officers may enter private land when they see people hunting, fishing or trapping to check them for appropriate licenses or tags, just as they do on public land.

Commissioner Brody Harshbarger, a rancher from Aston in the Upper Snake Region, said officers have technology available today that makes it easy to identify and contact landowners and seek permission to enter private land.

"I don't think it's a big problem to call and ask for permission," he said. "I kind of like this bill and I know it hobbles us in certain ways but with the technology our conservation officers have, a lot of these points aren't as relevant as they could be"

Commissioner Davies, Greg Cameron of the Magic Valley Region and Dave Bobbit of Coeur d'Alene disagreed and said the bill will severely limit the ability of the department to enforce game laws.

"I don't think this bill helps our conservation officers at all. I don't think we should support it," Cameron said.

Commissioner Don Ebert of Weippe, representing the Clearwater Region, said he found logic on both sides and is comforted by the department's policy and the professional conduct of conservation officers. He ultimately voted with the majority to tag the bill with a do-not-support rating and said one reason is there could be times when a private landowner is the suspect of illegal activity and obtaining permission to enter the property in question would be impossible.

"That could be somewhat problematic," he said.

Harshbarger's was the lone vote against the do-not-support rating.

Barker may be contacted at or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.