F&G eyes doubling wildlife depredation money

BOISE — Idaho Fish and Game commissioners will consider doubling the amount of money available to compensate landowners for crop damage caused by deer, elk and other wildlife.

Commissioner Dan Blanco of Moscow said the commission directed the Idaho Department of Fish and Game on Feb. 2 to prepare a proposal that would lift the ceiling on the depredation fund from $750,000 to $1.5 million. Increasing the limit would require legislation, either as a standalone bill or an addition to the department’s stalled fee increase package.

Blanco said the department also is exploring other measures that could help prevent crop damage.

Commissioners and the leadership of the department are scrambling to find a way to appease Rep. Marcus Gibbs of Grace, who has refused to print legislation that would increase hunting and fishing fees by $1 to $6 and keep the department flush with cash. In January, Gibbs, a former Fish and Game commissioner, said the department won’t get a fee increase until unspecified problems with its depredation program are fixed.

Gibbs declined to name specific problems or solutions but suggested to the Spokesman-Review that allowing landowners to sell their hunting tags or to increase the number of prime hunting tags the state sells at auction might be acceptable.

Idaho hunters have routinely said they oppose both measures, and Blanco said neither was discussed at Thursday’s meeting, which was conducted via conference call.

Commission chairman Brad Corkill of Cataldo said the department is exploring a number of options to improve the depredation program. Mike Keckler, communications director for Fish and Game at Boise, said the department will unveil its proposals to the commission this week during a planned conference call.

During the legislative session the commission meets by phone at 7 a.m. each Thursday. Those who wish to listen to the calls can do so at the department’s regional offices but must make arrangements ahead of time.

Every year the department deposits $200,000 in money generated by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses into the depredation account and also transfers about $50,000 in interest money into the account from a separate fund. The depredation account has a cap of $750,000. When it grows above that figure, money is transferred to other accounts. The first $100,000 above the $750,000 ceiling is used to improve access to hunting and fishing. Anything above that is transferred to a predator control fund.

The account currently holds just under $800,000.

Former commissioner Keith Carlson of Lewiston said hunters and anglers should be given a chance to comment on any proposals that would spend their money.

“It is inherently bad in my view if you don’t let the public know what you are doing with their money,” he said.

Brian Brooks of the Idaho Wildlife Federation said there are a number of tools available to both compensate landowners and proactively reduce crop damage. He said hunters won’t back anything that expands auction tags or allows landowners to sell the tags they receive from the state. He also worried that too much money from the fee increase bill will be siphoned off to the depredation program.

“If we are going to fight for a fee increase and the Legislature is going to take it and put it in the depredation fund, we are back to round one.”