Plan to nix political party rule for IDFG is ‘flat out dangerous,’ commissioner says
Nicole Blanchard, Idaho Statesman
BOISE — An Idaho Fish and Game commissioner and sportsmen’s groups are speaking out against a bill that would remove the requirement for the commission to include no more than four members of a single political party, saying it would subject the commission to political whims.
House Bill 514, which passed the House Resources and Conservation Committee late last month, would strike from Idaho code a provision allowing no more than four members of the seven-member Idaho Fish and Game Commission to belong to the same political party.
Two former Fish and Game commissioners, Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, and Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, were among the majority of lawmakers that voted in favor of the bill. It was sent to the Senate Resources and Environment Committee where committee chair Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, said he won’t introduce the bill.
“I think it’s bad policy to make the Fish and Game commission a partisan commission,” Heider said in a phone interview. “I decided as soon as I got it on my desk that it was going to stay in the drawer for the rest of the session.”
Bill would dismantle Fish and Game Commission legislation approved by voters in 1938
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, told the House committee he introduced the bill because of an “incident” earlier this year in which Clearwater Region Fish and Game Commissioner Bradley Melton stepped down. Commissioners Derick Attebury, Lane Clezie, Greg Cameron and Brad Corkill are registered Republicans, while commissioners Jerry Meyers and Tim Murphy are unaffiliated. Melton would have been the fifth Republican on the commission, but he changed his party affiliation to “unaffiliated” after submitting his commission application.
“We brought this bill because we felt that it shouldn’t be about politics, it should be about Fish and Game and what’s best for policy for Fish and Game and the agency,” Shepherd told the House committee Feb. 25. Shepherd said he had not reached out to sportsmen’s groups or Fish and Game for feedback on the legislation.
The Fish and Game Commission itself is rooted in politics. It was created by Idaho’s first voter initiative in 1938 following a series of political majority shifts in the Legislature and the Idaho governor’s office.
“It was passed in response to partisan politics being injected into wildlife management. Sportsmen said ‘enough is enough,’ ” Brian Brooks, director of conservation group the Idaho Wildlife Federation, said in a phone interview.
Brooks spoke in opposition of the bill at the Feb. 25 House committee meeting, as did a representative for Trout Unlimited. Brooks said he agrees with Shepherd’s assertion that party affiliations shouldn’t matter in Fish and Game dealings.
“There’s no such thing as a Republican mule deer or a Democrat cutthroat trout,” Brooks told the Statesman.
He said the concern is that if there is no requirement to limit the number of commissioners affiliated with a single party, the commission could be subject to future political shifts. Commissioners, one for each of Fish and Game’s seven regions, are appointed by the governor in staggered four-year terms and must be approved by the state Senate.
“When you let politics have sway, science gets thrown out the window in favor of party politics,” Brooks said. “… Partisan makeup has shifted 15 times in state history. Do you think it won’t shift again?”
Brooks added that the current requirements haven’t caused trouble in finding qualified commissioners.
“The bottom line should be if they hunt or fish,” Brooks said.
Making Idaho Fish and Game Commission partisan is ‘flat out dangerous,’ commissioner says
Derick Attebury, of Idaho Falls, is currently the Fish and Game commissioner for the Upper Snake region. In an email sent March 2 to members of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, which will not hear the legislation, Attebury said he opposes the bill.
“I am not sure as to how this bill has even been brought to this point?” he wrote in the email. “No commissioners contacted to get their point of view — I have not been contacted other than from concerned sportsmen and sportswomen who are trying to get their head wrapped around this legislation.”
Attebury said he wrote his email as an individual commissioner, not a spokesman for the commission.
“This is a bad idea. In fact it is flat out dangerous,” Attebury wrote.
He told senators he believes Melton, the Clearwater commissioner who stepped down, would’ve been a good commissioner. But Melton’s ouster doesn’t justify the legislation, Attebury said.
“But to toss language from the 1938 initiative merely to combat one situation is a solution looking for a problem. It does not exist,” he wrote. “The current setup works great. It protects every hunter, angler and trapper in this state past, present and future. No more than four from the same political party protects my grandsons future and that matters most to me.”
That doesn’t mean the issue is entirely off the table. Heider told the Statesman he may revisit and “reword” the legislation in an upcoming session.