March 16–OAKLEY — Wildlife groups are calling for more state attention to improving game habitat as lawmakers consider fee hikes for hunting and fishing licenses.
Chuck Ranstrom, state president of Idaho for Wildlife, said sportsmen believe many of the game populations have dwindled from 20 years ago.
While lawmakers and public land agencies wrangle over whether fees should be raised or landowners allowed to sell game tags, his group and other volunteers say they’re picking up where the state is falling short: improving the habitat.
“Personally, I’m not opposed to a rate increase. I recognize the fact that (the Idaho Department of) Fish and Game hasn’t increased fees in 10 years,” Ranstrom said. “But, we need to see more boots on the ground in regards to actual land management rather than the money being lost in a shuffle of paperwork. We’re really at odds with how they are spending the money they receive.”
Part of the group’s mission is to hold public lands agencies accountable and ensure that science is used in wildlife management.
“Anytime we do a big restoration program it costs money,” said Mark Fleming, Idaho Department of Fish and Game regional wildlife habitat manager for the Magic Valley.
More than 75 land tracts in Minidoka and Cassia counties and 284 in the Magic Valley were set aside for wildlife under a cooperative management agreement with the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation that could be developed into winter grounds for large game and birds, said George Warrell, chairman of the Mini-Cassia chapter of Idaho for Wildlife.
“Certainly opportunity exists to improve habitat on these tracts,” Ranstrom said. “People talk about losing habitat, but there are places to put sustainable habitat and yet nothing is being done.”
Fleming said Fish and Game works on those tracts, but the agency is reliant on BLM for the money.
“We concentrate on one or two tracts per year for total restoration,” said Fleming. But, the agency goes out to inspect the tracts, spray noxious weeds and make sure signs and fences are in good condition on the others.
Fleming said the agency relies on volunteers for big projects like replanting areas where wildfire has reduced habitat.
They have about 600 volunteers that have been going out each year to plant sagebrush and bitterbrush seedlings in burn areas.
Ranstrom said some of the replanting projects appear unsuccessful because many of the plants die.
The seedlings are dependent on how much moisture is in the ground and sometimes they have to replant areas, but persistence will eventually pay off, Fleming said.
The wildlife chapter has completed several habitat projects including installing two guzzlers that collect rainwater in large storage containers that give wildlife access to water. They also built ponds at Sublett and leased an old landfill from Cassia County the group is turning into usable habitat for birds and game.
The group has planted foraging plants and released upland game at the landfill, which are now starting to populate the area. And Warrell and his family cleaned all the old refuse from one 50-acre tract south of Oakley, except for one large sign that reads “Frontier Hotel,” which, he said, was too large to carry.
The $2,000 guzzler is now starting to draw antelope, deer and elk. Warrell supplied the labor to install it.
Last year the group also released fish into Land Creek, providing an opportunity for children to fish.
The group works with public land agencies on all the projects to acquire the proper permits and is willing to continue to work with them to make a sustainable difference, Warrell said, but they need to sit down regularly with those officials to discuss the issues.
“We do as much as we can, but we’re only volunteers,” Warrell said.
“Those folks (Idaho for Wildlife) are doing good things on the ground. It’s not us against them. Those types of partnerships are a good way to get things done,” Fleming said. “And we’re doing what we can out on the landscape. Right now we are concentrating on replanting habitat for big game.”
Meanwhile, HB32, a bill that proposes an increase in the license costs, has stalled in committee and may be tabled in favor of a new bill.
Fish and Game is asking for an overall 20 percent increase in license fees that would generate $2.2 million in revenue, but the bill may be scuttled in favor of a new proposal that adds a clause allowing landowners to sell wildlife hunting tags they receive when game winters on their lands.