In my experience, hunters tend to be very traditional, often viewing changes in regulations with some skepticism and a narrow focus on their preferences and activities and not necessarily that of other hunters or the resource. Sometimes hunters are correct to be skeptical, other times they overreact.
Over the last two weeks I’ve described recent changes to Idaho sage-grouse hunting regulations and the science behind them. I suspect most hunters’ support for these new regulations may be affected by issues only indirectly related to hunting sage-grouse. Let’s take a look at some of these issues.
Most hunters are at least somewhat aware that legal guidance for Idaho hunting and fishing regulations is provided in Idaho Code 36-103a stating “All wildlife … within the state of Idaho, is hereby declared to be the property of the state of Idaho. It shall be preserved, protected, perpetuated, and managed. It shall be only captured or taken … in such manner, as will preserve, protect, and perpetuate such wildlife ….” The code emphasizes preservation, protection, and perpetuation. Many may first judge hunting regulations on whether they meet the intent of this law.
Given the magnitude of the changes for sage-grouse hunting regulations there was surprisingly little public outreach or involvement, especially with respect to how the new regulations would be more effective conserving and managing populations compared to earlier regulations. The Department simply posted a news release about the new sage-grouse tag and provided two other news releases after the new regulations were approved. The only public input into the process occurred at the IDFG Commission’s public meeting. This lack of candor will likely alarm some hunters.
The revised regulations substantially increase the cost of hunting sage-grouse. My calculations indicate the cost of a dad taking his two boys sage-grouse hunting increased by over 370%. Last year each hunter bought a sage/sharp-tailed grouse permit for $4.75; total cost for the father and two sons was $14.25. Now that same cost is $68.25 and they would still have to get a sharptail permit if they wanted to hunt that species.
The new regulations have a substantial effect on falconers. If a falconer also enjoys hunting sage-grouse with a shotgun, the new regulations mean that hunter has to choose either gun or falcon because of the restriction on tags. Although falconers have a 7-month season, they can only take one sage-grouse in most zones, so the length of season is meaningless for those wanting to pursue sage-grouse.
Agencies have made some headway in educating hunters and others on the impacts of habitat loss to sage-grouse. In his 1981 monograph on sage-grouse, former IDFG biologist Bob Autenrieth noted that the idea that hunting is the primary constraint on sage-grouse numbers is widespread among hunters. Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of these regulation changes is that the focus on hunting detracts from meaningful conservation issues and gives the impression of progress when, in fact, things are getting worse. IDFG’s renewed focus on hunting may undo efforts to conserve habitat and appears to run counter to Idaho law requiring preservation, protection, and perpetuation of wildlife.
I suspect most hunters would agree that a flexible harvest system allowing a Fish and Wildlife Agency to respond to unexpected changes is a good idea. Hunters and the general public will be most likely to support hunting regulations that they perceive are effective in conserving the resource while providing reasonable hunting opportunity. Given the rollout of the new regulations and especially the agency’s minimal effort at public involvement, the new sage-grouse regulations may alienate people that normally advocate for sage-grouse conservation. Only time will tell whether hunters and the general public will be satisfied with the revised regulations.