Posted: Sunday, September 7, 2014
POCATELLO — During his eight years on the Idaho Fish and Game Commission Randy Budge has done everything from wrestle with pelicans to dodge complaints about wolves from heavily armed sportsmen in North Idaho. Budge, a native of Soda Springs and a Pocatello attorney, served on the commission from 2006 until this June. State law only allows for Fish and Game commissioners to serve for two four-year terms.
“I’m the beneficiary of term limits,” Budge told members of the Pocatello Rotary during Thursday’s noon luncheon meeting.
Although Budge said he learned a lot about the biology and science of fish and game management in the Gem State, he also learned a lot about sociology. He referred to some of the more colorful public hearings he attended as “cheap entertainment.”
Budge said the wolf debate in Idaho sparked the most interesting exchanges. After being introduced in the Greater Yellowstone Area in 1995, Idaho’s wolf population grew to about 1,500 animals quickly, according to Budge. This led to the delisting of wolves as endangered in 2010 when Idaho established a hunting season for wolves.
“Wolves have been the dominant issue,” Budge said. “I can’t figure out why some people demonize wolves and other people idolize them.”
The reintroduction of wolves to the ecosystem in North Idaho became a hot issue when the one of the state’s largest elk herds went from about 15,000 animals to about 1,500.
Budge said the Fish and Game commission was forced to device an “escape plan” after holding a hearing in Wallace after the elk herds started to dwindle. He said there were vocal forces on both sides of the issue present in the crowd of about 300 people. He also said the meeting was located next to a bar, which was probably not a good thing.
And last year when a group in Salmon organized a wolf and coyote derby with prizes for killing the most animals, Budge said the commissioners were inundated with hateful emails from pro-wolf people. Budge said he responded to the concerns by betting that not one wolf would be killed and he was right.
According to statistics shared by Budge at the Rotary meeting, Idaho has sold 43,000 wolf tags since seasons were established and hunters have only killed 400 wolves.
That’s a low success rate compared to either deer or elk hunting. He said last year Idaho hunters killed about 50,000 deer for a 30 percent success rate and elk hunters had a 20 percent success rate with about 20,000 elk harvested.
“We don’t have a large wolf problem,” Budge said.
He explained that five areas in North Idaho have seen wolf depredation severely affect the elk population, but that is not the case in the other 25 areas of the state.
An avid fisherman, Budge said one of his main focuses on the commission was to do something about the exploding pelican population at Blackfoot Reservoir. He said the state is invested in bringing back larger numbers of Yellowstone cutthroat trout, but the thousands of pelicans along the Blackfoot River and reservoir have devastated the trout numbers.
Because pelicans are protected under federal migrant bird legislation, simply killing the birds wasn’t an option. Idaho Fish and Game finally received permission to oil pelican eggs on two main island in the reservoir to keep them from hatching.
Budge said management of the state’s fisheries has been a big success and fisherman alone contributed about $550 million to the state’s economy last year.
Budge said Idaho has the lowest cost for a resident fishing license of the 11 surrounding states and the second lowest cost resident hunting license making the sports very affordable for Idahoans.
He said Idaho Fish and Game faces to major challenges in the future.
The first challenge is that the agency is trying to manage all of the state’s wildlife, game and non-game, but its funding is strictly through the sales of hunting and fishing licenses. No general fund money is given to prop up the agency’s $82 million annual budget.
Another challenge facing the department is the fact less young people are becoming fishermen and hunters. This means license revenue will fall in the future and bring the need for budget cuts to Fish and Game, according to Budge.
Budge said of all the youngsters who complete hunter safety courses only 10 percent get a hunting license the next year.
He said the younger generation doesn’t seem to have the same fascination with the great outdoors that he did as a kid and shared a story about visiting the Lewiston Fish and Game headquarters.
Lewiston houses a massive taxidermy collection of every wild animal and fish in the state. When Budge visited there were two young boys sitting on the floor in the middle of the impressive display playing a game on an iPod.
His efforts to call their attention to the mounted animals around them fell on deaf ears.
“That’s going to produce a challenge in the future,” Budge said.