Writings and observations

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Idaho voters over the years have had a hand in reshaping or founding several important state agencies, from the Department of Water Resources to the reapportionment commission. But the Department of Fish & Game may be the most voter-impacted of all.

The dispute ongoing now, involving two Fish & Game commissioners – Mark Doerr of Kimberly and Will Naillon of Challis – who were not reappointed by Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, makes for a direct reflection on some of that.

Idaho has had fishing and hunting rules since its early territorial days; the first were set in 1864, banning big game hunting for a period from February to July. But those rules were on the honor system. No one enforced fish or game law until after statehood, when in 1899 the Fish & Game Department was first created and a game warden was hired. (Maybe there’s an indicator here: Idaho is among the states referring to “game” in its agency name, while most other nearby states, such as Washington, Oregon, California, Montana and Utah, refer to “wildlife”.)

That early agency was under direct political control, meaning that governors appointed the executives and oversaw the staff, and legislatures directly set much of the policy. Not many years passed before complaints began to surface. As early as 1911 the state Game Warden, Frank Kendall, advised “placing the fish and game department of Idaho on a scientific basis and in order to do so we must have men who have made this a study and are familiar with the needs and requirement of this line of work, regardless of political affiliations, and to this end I would recommend … we place the men who are directly in the fish and game department under a civil service ruling and retain them as long as they do good work.”

Sportsmen’s groups started calling for the same thing, pressing the legislature to upgrade the state fish and game efforts. Lobbying over a span of 25 years by Idaho’s many hunters and fishers got them nowhere.

In 1938 they mobilized to place on the ballot their proposal, placing fish and game under control of a commission and requiring that officers hold and keep their jobs based on merit. At a time when suspicion of government expansion was not so different from now across much of Idaho, the initiative passed with 76 percent of the vote. That measure set the framework for the Department of Fish & Game still in place today.

Nothing in government can ever truly be “taken out of politics,” and in the broad sense shouldn’t be – that would mean the public has no input, no control. And there’s often some tension between what various people in the public, and sometimes their elected officials, want and what the fish and game department and commission do. But the measure of independence usually has been seen as a plus.

In 1995, new Governor Phil Batt asked for letters of resignation of the commissioners; he had wanted the departure of the then-director, Jerry Conley, and a number of policy changes. A statewide eruption ensued, and Batt dropped his request for the resignations.

He later told Idaho Public Television, “I found out that was a mistake, I apologized for it, and since that time I have never tried to influence any decision of the Fish and Game Commission. I don’t think that I should. I do think that we all have to work together for the good of the State of Idaho, I’ve impressed that on them many a time, but I’ve never tried to tell them what they have to do or what they can’t do.”

The tension is always there. Doerr and Naillon could tell you about that.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus