Legislation to be introduced to Idaho lawmakers later this winter highlights key issues in the sometimes prickly relationship between two types of Rocky Mountain hunters: those who prefer traditional methods and those who bag their game with the aid of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).
The proposed changes in Idaho law, being prepared by state Sen. Tim Corder (R-Mountain Home), will address the role of Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) in determining which trails should be open or closed to hunters using ATVs. In recent years, such decisions have been increasingly driven by federal initiatives of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
In 2001, Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission approved the Motorized Vehicle Rule, which aims to help protect wildlife resources by limiting the use of vehicles as aids to hunting. The intention was both to decrease the efficiency of hunters who use ATVs and to address increasing complaints from other hunters about the negative effects of such vehicles, particularly in remote places.
“We tried to cut as much slack as possible and still keep within our biological roles,” says IDFG spokeman Ed Mitchell, “and, frankly, to keep relations between hunters from becoming explosive.”
The question, he says, is whether the IDFG regulation will become moot in the face of the USFS Travel Management Rule, which is causing some tough clampdowns on ATV usage on federal land. For example, last fall the Forest Service closed 377 trails covering about 50 miles in southeastern Idaho’s Caribou-Targhee National Forest, which the agency claimed were illegally created by off-road vehicles.
The USFS Travel Management Rule was initiated in 2005 to provide a mechanism for states to gather public input and decide which national forest trails should be open or closed to off-road motorized use. By now, the process has been completed for many trails throughout the Rocky Mountain states, although administrators of some national forests are still developing their plans. The BLM conducts similar travel management planning on other public lands.
According to a 2007 Forest Service discussion paper, the number of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) in the United States rose from almost 3 million to more than 8 million from 1993 to 2003. In 2004, the forest service identified about 14,000 miles of unauthorized trails created by OHV users in national forests and grasslands.
Trail closures can be messy, involving significant tree-falling, large ditches, and fencing. ATV operators claim that those who would break the rules, including dirt bike riders, won’t be stopped by such methods, anyway.
Clark Collins, president of the Idaho State ATV Association (ISATVA), thinks rogue ATV riders are not a major problem and public education is the key. After the Forest Service designates trails for a region it creates maps, but Collins says, “The travel management maps, unfortunately, are not very useful to someone who’s not used to reading maps.”
The maps generally lack common names of creeks or other landmarks near trails, he says, which makes them hard for the lay person to read. What’s more, signage on the ground is often not good, although he says this varies. In Utah, where Collins often has ridden trails, he says the signage is generally better than in Idaho, “so you can verify you are where you think you are.” He says Utah officials have told him that they do not suffer major problems with illegal ATV trail riding.
Perhaps the biggest issue concerning ATVs and hunting is whether riders should be allowed to drive off-road to retrieve game. The current IDFG rule allows game retrieval off established roads by ATV, and permits the drivers to go off-road to unload camping equipment. However, on some trails it only allows ATVs for recreational uses other than hunting.
The rule derives from the notion that ATVs are a “means of take,” says Mark Sauerwald, an ISATVA member working with Sen. Corder on the proposed changes. He argues that weaponry and their attachments are means of take, while ATVs are means of transportation, like boots and horses. Sauerwald finds it absurd that berry-pickers can pass him on ATVs as he hikes down a trail but they are not allowed to give him a ride because he’s hunting.
“They’ve essentially closed thousands and thousands of acres to hunters, because you have to walk 30 or 40 miles, and who’s going to do that? Essentially, the horseback riders,” he says. “We’ve got travel management plans coming out of our ears with closed trails. The last thing we need is the Department of Fish and Game jumping in with their own rules.”
Sauerwald points out that ATV hunters who wish to break the IDFG rule can go off a roadway to throw down a tent wherever they see game, and then shoot it. “Fish and Game is absolutely never going to have enough people out there to enforce that.”
Early this year, IDFG Commissioner Suzi Budge told the State Senate Resources and Environment Committee there were 23 citations and 33 warnings in 2008 for violating the off-road vehicle rule in restricted hunting units, among about 6,000 citations for all violations.
Sharon Kiefer, assistant director of policy for IDFG, says of the rule, “There’s no doubt it’s got its challenges, relative to, number one, public understanding and, number two, enforcement.”
She says the department’s big game managers worry about vulnerability of the animals to hunters, and the rule is a tool to manage that concern. If it were eliminated, other tools would be available, but she thinks they also would be problematic.
Within designated hunting units of national forestlands, state fish and game departments manage hunter use patterns and harvest, David Olson, public affairs officer for the Boise National Forest, notes. Limitations on tags and shortening of hunting seasons for species in selected regions are among their tools to protect wildlife resources. They also have a say, along with other state agencies and the public, in designation of trails for off-road vehicle use, and in annual updates of those decisions.
Olson says the Boise National Forest’s five districts completed their travel management process without any administrative appeals from the public concerning trail designations. Other national forests in southern and central Idaho have been not so fortunate. At least five lawsuits have arisen from new trail designations, some initiated by conservation groups and others by parties that want more vehicular access.
“If you’re familiar with the hunting units, you’re going to notice pretty rapidly that there’s a distinct geographic limitation,” says Kiefer.
Open land is the main concern in such hunting units, she explains, because country that is less heavily forested is often more readily accessible to ATVs, and is where the concern is greatest for the animals’ vulnerability. None of northern Idaho’s hunting units use the motorized vehicle rule. Kiefer adds that in a few hunting units in southern Idaho where the USFS travel management plans were not yet in place, the IDFG actually rescinded its rule.
“We feel we need big blocks of habitat that are separate from the noise and disturbance of ATV activities,” says Jim Akenson, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
A wildlife biologist who now lives in Oregon but has studied big game in Idaho for decades, Akenson also has bow-hunted in wild country around the West. He says the national organization he heads is concerned with “escape opportunity” for animals, and with the quality of the traditional hunting experience, which he describes as “a respectful act of pursuing game.”
In Akenson’s current research of Bighorn Sheep in the Lemhi Range of central Idaho near the Montana border, he says the main recreational disturbance to the animals is “hot-rod dirt bikers” illegally traveling uphill at elevations above 9,500 feet.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers offer $1,000 rewards for turning in people who subsequently are prosecuted for off-road vehicle laws, which Akenson believes has been a particularly effective strategy in western Montana. That state also operates an incentive program through Fish, Wildlife and Parks, in which private landowners allow free hunting on their property, on the condition that it be done on foot.
Akenson says New Mexico is another state that has significant problems with off-road violations. As a hunter in wilderness and other lands where vehicles are not allowed, his experience has not been affected by motorized hunters.
“For me, the area that’s one of the hardest to deal with is retrieval of game,” he says, admitting that he personally thinks there could be “wiggle room” for such activity, if it will cause a decrease in wastage of meat.
Surprisingly, ATV advocate Sauerwald is less accommodating. “If you’re going to put down a 700-pound animal, like an elk, and you haven’t made preparations to pack it out, that’s your fault,” he asserts.
“We understand that there are good, law-abiding ATV users out there,” Akenson says, “and in a lot of cases our objective is to team up with them.”