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Feds Playing Politics with Fish, Huffaker says

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, October 7, 2004

Counting hatchery fish and wild salmon, steelhead just doesn't make sense,
Fish and Game chief tells gathering

Hatchery fish are no substitute for Idaho's wild salmon and steelhead, according to Idaho's Fish and Game director.

Steve Huffaker said the federal government's plan to count hatchery fish and even some rainbow trout in the same populations as protected salmon and steelhead doesn't pass the common-sense test.

He called the policy "politically expedient" when talking to sportsmen at a Lewiston breakfast meeting Tuesday and agreed with some audience members that the policy is aimed more at taking fish off the endangered species list than at recovering wild salmon and steelhead runs.

"It just seems to me to be a grab for numbers," he said.

Huffaker also spoke to sportsmen about the department's proposal to raise hunting and fishing fees and the balance of resident and nonresident hunting.

In May, NOAA Fisheries announced a new policy that will count wild salmon and steelhead and genetically similar hatchery fish in the same populations. The policy also will count rainbow trout in the same population as wild steelhead trout, because the two fish share a genetic history.

The policy would even apply to trout in the upper North Fork of the Clearwater River, which is blocked by Dworshak Dam.

Huffaker, who is a fisheries biologist by training, said the federal fisheries agency is banking too much on fish genetics and not considering the life history of wild salmon and steelhead, and their behavior.

He suggested NOAA Fisheries biologists are influenced too heavily by academic and laboratory evidence and too little by field science.

Counting hatchery salmon and steelhead and rainbow trout as wild fish is "a fairy tale," he said.

"I think they are out there in La-La Land and eventually they will be brought back."

But even given his strong opinions, Huffaker said he does not know how strongly his department might word its comments on the draft plan, or if the comments will come from Fish and Game or the governor's office. The federal government does not give much weight to comments from the state, he said

Ed Schriever, regional fisheries manager for the department at Lewiston, said he is preparing comments based on the plan's inclusion of rainbow trout above Dworshak Dam in the North Fork of the Clearwater River in the same population as wild steelhead trout.

Even though the fish share a genetic history, today they are two very different populations, he said.

"Certainly that doesn't make sense to us," he said.

The department used to comment directly on draft fish and wildlife policies from the federal government, but the comments are now coordinated by the state Office of Species Conservation and the governor's office. Neither Huffaker nor Schriever knew whether the department's comments would be forwarded to NOAA Fisheries.

Huffaker also told the audience of about 40 that the time is ripe for a 13.7 percent across-the-board hike in hunting and fishing fees.

"We are going to take it to the Legislature," he said. "If you disagree, the Legislature will disagree."

The money is needed to cover rising costs of things like fuel, equipment and utilities, he said. The department last raised fees, with the Legislatures blessing, in 1999.

This year the department and its governing commission will ask for the authority to raise fees by 25 cents to 75 cents annually, instead of raising them by larger amounts every five or six years.

"We think it makes sense to pay as you go," he said.

New offices being constructed in Lewiston, Salmon and Jerome would not be funded by the fee increase, he said. The buildings are being financed by the Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation and leased back to the state.

The lease payments would come from the Fish and Game budget, which is generated by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and tags.

Despite a lawsuit in Arizona striking down a 10 percent cap on nonresident hunting permits, Idaho will continue to limit the sale of deer, elk and trophy game tags by the same amount, according to Huffaker.

"The commission feels if people want the same fishing and hunting privileges as Idahoans have, they can move to Idaho."

But if the state is challenged in court, he said, it will likely have to changes its nonresident cap policy.

The Arizona case went all the way to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the state lost. Huffaker is hopeful the case will eventually make it to the Supreme Court and be overturned.

Eric Barker
Feds Playing Politics with Fish, Huffaker says
Lewiston Tribune, October 7, 2004

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