Long before the Idaho Department of Fish and Game was established, hunters and other Idaho residents were concerned over the status of Idaho wildlife, especially deer and elk. Attempts at conserving and managing big game began around the turn of the 20th century when seasons were shortened and bag limits established.
At that time, state law dictated hunters could take no more than four each of deer, antelope, mountain sheep, and mountain goat as well as two elk. Licenses for residents and non-residents were required in 1903. As you might imagine, with little law enforcement and many residents still depending on wild game for groceries, these early rules had little effect. Although the office of State Game Warden was created in 1890, followed a few years later by legislation allowing each county commission to appoint a game warden, these positions were largely political and wildlife law enforcement efforts were often ineffective. Big game herds were still in jeopardy.
Fortunately, the U.S. Forest Service was established in 1905 under the leadership of Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot (and his boss Theodore Roosevelt) were early advocates of conservation of the nation’s natural resources. Following their lead and concerned about the decline in big game and gamebird populations, in 1909 Boise National Forest Supervisor Emile Grandjean asked the Idaho Legislature to establish the 220,000-acre South Fork Payette River Game Preserve west of the Sawtooth Mountains. His intent was mostly to protect deer and elk but the preserve would be off-limits to all hunting and trapping. The one exception was that mountain lions, lynx, wolves, and coyotes could be killed by wardens. Forest rangers would act as deputy game wardens and provide much needed additional enforcement. The Legislature approved the preserve on March 13, 1909, and it became the first of many game preserves designed to restore Idaho’s wildlife populations.
Eleven big game preserves were legislatively created by 1925 along with bird preserves designated by an early version of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (not the agency that exists today). Combined, the two classifications involved three-million acres mostly on national forest lands. A major impetus for establishing these preserves was to protect elk that were transplanted from Yellowstone National Park starting in 1915 to rebuild Idaho herds.
Through the 1940s, the Fish and Game Department strongly supported efforts to create big game and bird preserves. An early IDFG report noted there were either preserves or sanctuaries, or both, in virtually every county of the state in the 1940s.
Preserves were successful in boosting big game populations. Unfortunately, they were too successful and damage to the range started to occur. Something had to be done but the program was popular with state politicians and many Idaho residents. Ultimately, the USFS again engaged state politicians and resource managers. The USFS documented the damage being done by growing big game herds and helped guide efforts to allow hunting on preserves.
By the early 1960s, most preserves had been abolished by the Idaho Fish & Game Commission but the idea of establishing areas where managing wildlife was a priority lingered on. Several key purchases of big game winter range were made which, combined with purchases from previous years, formed the nucleus of the Department’s current Wildlife Management Area program. By 1974, IDFG had 170,000 acres in Wildlife Management Areas and by 1987 the Department had acquired 24 Wildlife Management Areas and 209 sportsman access areas throughout the state.
As it turned out, not all preserves and sanctuaries were eliminated. In fact, four remain and Bingham County contains one of these remaining preserves, the Springfield Bird Preserve in the western portion of the county, immediately adjacent to Springfield.