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In the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Idaho saw a 65% increase in fishing license sales over the previous year, Fish & Game officials told lawmakers today, as Idahoans did “social distancing Idaho style.” Paul Kline, deputy director of policies and programs for Idaho F&G, said, “Idahoans have found much-needed respite in Idaho’s outdoors, including hunting and fishing.” For 2020 as a whole, he said, “Over 450,000 Idahoans purchased an annual fishing license or hunting license, an increase of 11% over 2019. And I’m sure tens of thousands of younger kids that don’t need a license were going fishing on those family outings as well.”

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee held its budget hearing on the Department of Fish & Game this morning; the department receives no state general tax funds. Instead, it’s funded by licenses for hunting and fishing, at 52%; and federal grants for the remainder. You can read my full story here at idahopress.com (subscription required).

Fish & Game Director Ed Schriever didn’t participate in today’s budget hearing because he’s out sick. “He is under the weather and made the difficult but correct decision to stay at home,” Kline told JFAC.

As the pandemic hit Idaho, Kline said, “Idaho Fish & Game worked diligently to keep facilities and access points open to ensure folks had opportunities to recreate.” He said, “We worked closely with the governor’s office to coordinate with sister state agencies as well as federal land managers, to push back against the initial response to close facilities and recreational access – knowing that those actions simply result in more crowding at fewer places, unsafe conditions and resource damage.”

“Fishing and hunting generally lend themselves to social distancing,” Kline said. “However … it’s a balancing act, and the increased recreational use and participation presented challenges relating to crowding and congestion. These concerns are larger than the reaction to short-term shelter in place orders, and related to Idaho’s population growth and the general popularity of hunting and fishing in our great state.”

The way the state Fish & Game Commission has been dealing with that, he said, is to limit non-residents, particularly in general deer and elk hunts. “The actions taken by the commission to limit non-resident participation to 10 or 15% of the total number of hunters will reduce non-resident participation in some of our general elk hunts by up to 50%,” Kline said. “It will make a meaningful difference in hunter numbers and relieve crowding.”

Licensed outfitters in Idaho still were allocated a portion of non-resident tags, he said, equal to their historic use in each elk zone.

Last year, the Legislature approved a substantial non-resident fee increase for hunting and fishing. Also funded was a shift to a new license vendor. “The culmination of these efforts occurred on Dec. 1, when over 20,000 non-residents logged into our new system to purchase a license and tag for the 2021 deer and elk hunting seasons,” Kline said. “For the first time in our history, the department issued over 13,000 items, and sold almost $10 million in license permits and tags in one day. The response by non-residents demonstrated the fact that Idaho remains a destination for hunters due to the diversity and quality of opportunity that our resources provide.”

The non-resident fee increase was designed to be revenue-neutral, Kline said, selling fewer permits and tags at higher prices. “So far, revenue is coming in close to that original forecast,” he said.

Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, praised the moves. “We get a lot of complaints about things that are happening in Fish & Game; I think it’s a topic that raises the blood pressure for a lot of folks,” she said. “And this year, I loved the complaints that I got, because I got a lot of complaints from friends of mine that live out of the state and were frustrated, because they couldn’t get online to get a tag, and they were very frustrated by the limited number of tags. I told them if they want to hunt Idaho game, they’d better move to Idaho.”

She added, “This is Idaho game, and it’s for Idahoans. And I really appreciate your efforts there.”

Fish & Game officials also noted substantial changes in the agency’s “footprint” in the Treasure Valley, with a new regional office that opened in Nampa consolidating an array of services previously located elsewhere with a “new facility more centrally located to better serve the people of the Treasure Valley,” Kline said. As a result, the agency’s Garden City location is no longer needed and is currently on the market for sale; plans call to use the proceeds next year to pay off remaining leases of five regional offices, resulting in an ongoing budget savings of $500,000 a year into the future.

Fish & Game also is currently constructing a new headquarters building in Boise. When it opens in December, Fish & Game will have dropped from five locations in the Treasure Valley to two, Kline said. “We’ll put all of our headquarters staff under the same roof for the first time in over 20 years, and demonstrate to sportsmen our commitment to fiscal responsibility.”

The governor’s proposed budget for Fish & Game for next year reflects a 3.7% increase in total funds, with no general funds. The increase includes the lease payoffs and $6 million in mitigation work related to the Albeni Falls Dam in North Idaho, funded by a negotiated settlement between the Bonneville Power Administration and the state of Idaho. Due to COVID-19 related delays, $2 million that had been planned to be spent on that this year was shifted into next year’s work, increasing next year’s amount.

Fish & Game Chief of Administration Michael Pearson also reported back on a program lawmakers funded last year for $408,100 to improve wolf population estimates. “Fish & Game has purchased and deployed over 700 trail cameras in the summer of 2020 to take pictures every 10 minutes and when there is motion in the camera’s field,” Pearson told lawmakers. “We collected over 11 million pictures by October, and our research biologists have done amazing work with this data to estimate the abundance of wolves in Idaho.”

The current estimate is an average of “1,560-plus,” he said, “which is very similar to the estimate that staff generated last year. So that’s our standing estimate for our second year in a row.” He added, “I will point out that that estimate was made during a year where we saw the highest harvest levels that we’ve experienced, between hunting and trapping.”

The department also reported back on progress on last year’s appropriation to spend $329,300 to increase pheasant stocking across the state. “We expanded … to each region of the state in 2020,” Pearson said. “Release locations were increased from nine to 22, and the number of birds released in total increased from 20,000 in 2019 to over 34,000 birds last year.”

Fish & Game officials also noted that while hunter participation was up, F&G staffing levels remained the same. So they adjusted their goal for the number of license checks out in the field from 15% of total hunters to 8%.

Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, the JFAC co-chair and former Senate Resources Committee chair, told Pearson and Kline, who made their presentations remotely from a Division of Financial Management conference room, “Give our thanks to Director Schriever. We missed him, and we’ll be glad to have him back next year.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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