My Reply to Nate Helm. Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife-Idaho

Nate Helm, executive director of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, Idaho (SFW-ID) recently posted in response to some criticism of the organization on this blog.

I had posted a news release of theirs, “Sportsman For Fish & Wildlife To Announce Petition Drive To Delist Wolves.” In the followup comments, SFW-ID and SFW-WY were criticized.

Then Nathan Helm  in comment 13, December 11th, 2006 at 6:22 pm wrote:

It is with great hesitancy that I enter this discussion. I am always a willing participant when someone questions an actual position our organization takes. However, I feel great reservation when I enter the discussion between folks who haven’t done much to understand who and what SFW-Idaho represents. You know it is going to be bad when my having worked for Senator Craig is used to categorize the organization I now contract with.

Nevertheless, here are my two cents.

You can read all of the original post and comments here.

Then I asked Helm and Robert Wharff of SFW-WY the following (my response to Wharff’s reply is a more recent story)

Well both the SFW Wyoming and SFW Idaho are commenting on this thread, which is excellent.

I have some questions for Nathan and.or Robert Wharff.

1. I have always heard that Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife really means “just for some fish and wildlife,” namely the most popular hunted species only.

2. In line with that, I have heard that SFW Idaho is opposing the wildlife license plates because some of that money could end up benefiting wolves or non-hunted species.

3. For Robert in Wyoming, why do you support continued feeding of elk at winter feedlots when the incidence of brucellosis is clearly higher there than those elk that winter out?
And, of course, the spread of chronic wasting disease gravely threatens deer, elk, it even seems, moose. The disease seems to be passed on in close quarters.

Regarding the so-called “non-native” Canadian wolves that some have said were reintroduced, we have thoroughly hashed that out on this blog, but I think some of the folks will be happy to argue it again.

If SFW Wildlife Idaho is in favor of ending canned hunts behind tall fences and is willing to use its influence in the state legislature to that end, it is to your credit

Natan Helm replied:

Easiest ones first.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given over all wolf operations in Idaho to Idaho Fish and Game Dept, and so wolves are effectively delisted in fact, if not by law.”

I completely disagree with your assessment. If that were in fact the case we would have seen a reduction in the number of wolves in the Lolo Zone. That action would have, as you know, been based on the State’s determination that wolves were having an unacceptable impact on the depressed elk herd. No need to discuss the reason for depression, the reality is that the State cannot manage wolves as they choose under the approved management plan – period.

It then makes perfect sense to ask the feds to take that all so necessary step and cut the remaining strings puppeting our every move. It will remain a high organizational priority until relief is actually felt by sportsmen.

To your sportsmen for “some” fish and wildlife. I know we have taken criticism for focusing on some species. I also know that others have done the same because they are concerned about that species and the current management and its affects on them. It is not so different for us. However, SFW is a recreational organization that wants all wildlife but loves to hunt. Hunting is managed for some species. We could not continue this recreational activity if it were not sustainable. We look at our relationship as a stewardship where wildlife is to be used but not abused. Additionally, in our view, management is a critical component in this relationship we have with our environment. So, the caveat included at the end of your statement, “the most popular hunted species only” is not true. We do not care only about the most popular hunted species and no other. In fact, we recognize that our Mule Deer projects have broad reaching benefits for many sage brush obligate species. But make no mistake we are sportsmen – hunters, conservationists, recreationalists, naturalists, outdoorsmen, cooks, campers, hikers, bikers, horseback enthusiasts, fishermen, floaters, climbers, loggers, and more. We are not any one individual or any one idea.

Wildlife license plate issue….
As a new organization in Idaho we asked questions about the use of the dollars collected by the license plate. We found out that nearly without exception, every sportsmen with an elk license plate did not know where the money went but guessed it was going to help elk. I think you can see where it went from there. It was the Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Department who came out in a very defensive fashion because there was concern that the legislature would earmark dollars and harm the revenue for the non-game programs under the Department. It was likely a presentation by the Governor’s office that protected those dollars and kept things under the radar from the legislature. We still have members with very strong feelings about what they perceive to be a disingenuous presentation by the Department. I will note that they have more clarity on their web site and other locations about the use of those dollars.

I appreciate the kind words regarding our canned hunt statements. But, I would caution that our Board has not indicated a position requesting complete elimination but rather suggested that we need to do something to change our current situation. Their top concern is the potential impacts to our State’s game. That is why we spent most of our time dealing with domestic cervidae ranches. While we find the canned hunt not reflective of fair chase we have not indicated we want them outlawed. I will allow the board to make their own decision. I just did not want anyone to suggest we had made a final determination.

Nate, now here is what I have to say:

I thought your interest in delisting had mostly to do with the proposed wolf reduction in the Lolo zone where the elk herd has decreased greatly, as was predicted long before wolf reintroduction. Looks like I was right.

Yes the state could not offer enough scientific evidence that wolves were having an unacceptably large impact on elk there, and if the wolf was delisted, the state would not have to offer any evidence to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before embarking on a wolf reduction.

In my comments on the state proposal I indicated that the data they presented about wolf predation was based on too limited a time period and too small a sample of wolves, and that more observation was needed as well as yearly counts of elk as any wolf reduction proceeded over a 5-year period.

Because I have equal interest in both elk and wolves, I am glad the state has to offer convincing evidence (convincing to other than the state fish and game commission). Therefore, to me delisting at this time is a bad idea. Furthermore, I didn’t like the reduction coming in the form of a kill by Wildlife Services. If it is undertaken, it should be a wolf hunt.

In this blog, we have talked a lot about the demise of that former great elk herd in the Upper Clearwater. I know it was predicted, and I know heavy hunting of bears and mountain lions is already taking place. If we want to learn something, its best not to change too many factors at once. It’s not “is it habitat or is predators or both.” Which predators, if any at all? We can’t tell if we kill them all.

Regarding the membership of your organization. It is no doubt diverse as you say. I have been on Board of Directors of a number of conservation organizations, and I can tell you that it is the Board and the executive directors’ views that make most of the difference. Membership grows, falls, or changes in composition as new directions of the leaders of the organization become apparent, but it isn’t quick. So I am hypothesizing that what you and your Board think are the critical factors in what SFW does.

As for myself and many of the people who participate in this forum, interest in wildlife is broader than huntable species by far. I am pro-hunting, but I don’t hunt anymore. It used to be exciting, but I lost interest as I got interested in the relationships of the various kinds of wildlife. Neverthless, many people enjoy hunting; others enjoy the outdoors and wildlife in a different way. Both are superior to our civilization that is losing almost all contact with the outdoors, outdoor skills, and the benefits of being there.

I think my view and that of your organization are compatible as long as no one tries to maximize some species of wildlife. Unfortunately, because Idaho Fish and Game has to rely on hunting and fishing fees (mostly) the economic incentive of the organization is to greatly favor the major hunted species.

That brings us to the wildlife license plate issue. Yes the funds go to non-game wildlife. That should be made clear. It is one way those who are interested in other wildlife can put their money into state wildlife management. If you can help clarify that fact of where the money goes in a way that is not saying “let’s kill the program,” that’s fine.

Regarding the domestic cervidae ranches, I can only hope your Board gets fully onboard with most everyone else who has editorialized that the canned hunt portion at least needs to be shut down. They are a threat. The confirmed presence of red deer genes in the escaped elk in Eastern Idaho testify. Cervidae ranches are also a threat transmitting many diseases to wild elk (and vice versa). We have been fortunate in Idaho so far, but other states are breathing down our necks, even
Wyoming (I have some comments coming for Mr. Wharff!).

This next Idaho legislature will be more dominated by rural interests than usual, and without your help it will be easy (it might be easy anyway) for those legislators who think all animals should be livestock to kill efforts to close or better regulate these operations.







  1. Nathan Helm Avatar
    Nathan Helm

    Our (SFW’s) interest in delisting does not have as its primary motivation the proposed wolf reduction in the Lolo. It is certainly an example, though, of our interest in delisting. The state could not offer “enough” scientific evidence to satisfy the statistician’s (see also sue-happy wolf advocates narrowly focused on a single species) looking for statistical significance. However, it was adequate to meet the trained eye of professional wildlife managers who make decisions based on smaller indicators and a lot of real world experience. It was certainly adequate for the Idaho residents.

    Your solution or suggestion is that delisting is premature? You think we need more years of counts and observation to get a better and more representative sample of…? We know the wolves are eating meat. No one needs to fund another one of those studies. We know the populations in specific areas are depressed for one reason or another. We know the population of wolves is adequate to meet the “recovered” criteria (unless you are using wolves as a tool to gain in some other arena). Whether WS or a hunt is used to manage is immaterial to the delisting issue. Additionally, any habitat or predator discussion is appropriate when talking about elk but we are on the delisting subject. Idaho deserves to manage delisted wolves. We can then get back to management based on the interests of those who “own” the wildlife.

    I do think there are significant habitat issues in the Clearwater that must be addressed. That cannot be done overnight and an introduced population of additional predators only adds to the challenge of meeting the expectations of the germane public. One cannot be managed without the other. Either one by itself cannot provide the response Idahoans want. Oh, and by the way, it is likely better to change as many factors as possible to accomplish the outcomes we need. No sense in waiting around for the experimentation to happen when we already know that we can create a good balance.

    I am not as fearful as you regarding the maximization of “some species of wildlife”. All hunters/sportsmen I know enjoy seeing abundant and diverse wildlife when recreating and hunting. I would worry more if we had less hunters who were out making the observations they do and participating in wildlife enhancement/protection activities.

    SFW supports active management of wildlife. That is, we do not support a nature is better off without man philosophy. Man is here and so is wildlife. Maximizing a given species can have beneficial effects on the broader habitat for wildlife in general but that could be a discussion all in itself.

    We have been dancing around the fee issue for Fish and Game. We have and will continue to be engaged in the non game funding issue and the “conflict” with the Department’s mandate. We have opposed the trend to strengthen the non game branch of the Department. It has nothing to do with “protecting” non game species. It has everything to do with funding and law.

    Sportsmen finance the Department. Whether through federal “taxes” on sporting items or licenses or tags it comes from the hunting and fishing community. Here is the Department’s mission statement that identifies their obligations.

    Idaho Code 36-103
    “All wildlife, including all wild animals, wild birds, and fish, 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 at such times or places, under such conditions, or by such means, or in such manner, as will preserve, protect, and perpetuate such wildlife, and provide for the citizens of this state and, as by law permitted to others, continued supplies of such wildlife for hunting, fishing and trapping.”

    Sportsmen focus on the portions at the end that describe the why. “…and provide for the citizens of this state and, as by law permitted to others, continued supplies of such wildlife for hunting, fishing and trapping.” I have heard the non game program advocates simply quote the two words, “All wildlife…”. So herein lies the conflict. Sportsmen find the code to defend their right to place priority over huntable species and the justification to direct government to aid them for that purpose.

    I look forward to your thoughts. I hope we can narrow the issues because these strings are becoming a bit involved and I am certainly hesitant to give each issue more than a cursory response. But then again, it is your site.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Well we disagree about delisting for sure, but I’ll let anyone else chime in here for now about the Clearwater because I have written plenty in the past. Here are my comments to Idaho Fish and Game on the issue.

    One point I want to clarify is your statement above “The state could not offer “enough” scientific evidence to satisfy the statistician’s (see also sue-happy wolf advocates narrowly focused on a single species) looking for statistical significance.

    1. Achieving statistical significance is at the root of the scientific method. If you choose to decide on the basis data that are not statistically significant to reject the null hypothesis, it isn’t a decision based on science.

    2. Wolf advocates do not focus on a single species unless they are raging fools. Wolves eat ungulates and some other animals. Therefore, no prey, no wolves. Wolf advocates should be just as interested in elk as elk hunters are, and maybe more so. A hunter who focuses on animals that are not at the top of the food chain can take a narrower view than someone focuses on the predators who are at the top of the food chain. Wolf advocates is, in a way, a misnomer

  3. Nathan Helm Avatar
    Nathan Helm

    Quickly on the Clearwater (Lolo) wolf/elk issue.

    We want delisting because of the very standard you mention. I understand the need for statistical data collection and the importance of statistical significance in drawing conclusions. The threshold you understand from social statistics is not used in wildlife management when we talk about the scope and scale of Idaho or even a given big game management unit. I feel it would be like holding your data and conclusions (social science) to the same standard used in nuclear science where sample size is ten to the twenty-fourth.

    In managing big game herds we do our best to get thorough data but decisions are made based on indicators and history. It would be impractical and too costly to use the social scientist’s standards. I believe the current standards that are used are based on best available science. Big game managers have identified a workable solution based on models that reflect what is available. We rely on their data and experiences to make good decisions. I am sure you realize we cannot account for every factor to create a “real” model of the wildlife situation. But this discussion is not my point.

    (Incidentally, I believe the standard in the amended 10j never mentioned statistical significance. Correct me if I am wrong but it said an “unacceptable impact”. I do not want to debate that point either.)

    What I hoped to demonstrate was the justification for delisting based on the struggles to manage wolves in the Lolo. Our big game managers work to maintain the balances needed in our wildlife populations that will provide opportunity for hunting, fishing and trapping in perpetuity. That is the direction the citizen’s have provided. So, based on the fact that we have a recovered wolf population. And, our managers believe, based on reasonable data, they are having an unacceptable impact on ungulates they should, in fact, be managed. Absent the ability to make this logical management decision, we need delisting.

    I agree with you on point 2. I have met a few raging fools in my day.

  4. Robert Hoskins Avatar

    It appears that Nate Helm is making an argument for a qualitative assessment of the term “unacceptable impact on ungulates” based on trends and history. Well, having studied predators and predator control for a decade and a half, between the Yellowstone and the Yukon, the primary qualitative assessment is that habitat and climate are the fundamental limiting factors on ungulate populations. Even the Alaskans acknowledge that wolf control is unwise if the habitat into which wolf control “releases” an ungulate population is inadequate.

    What is an unacceptable impact on ungulates from a habitat perspective? That’s the question that needs to be asked.

    No one has tried to argue that habitat in the Clearwater is still adequate for elk. At least, I haven’t seen it. If a large percentage of wolves is controlled in the Clearwater area, the habitat will still be inadequate, and elk will not respond significantly to wolf control in the long term as long as the habitat is not suitable for a large population of elk.

    This is an ecological fact that SFW ignores.

    That’s why the answer, from a knowledgeable hunter’s perspective–and I’ve been a hunter for over 40 years–is to work the habitat, not kill wolves.

    When I hear someone say that the professionals in the agencies have concluded that predator control is necessary, what is actually being said is that the professionals are taking the easy way out by killing predators, even when they know from a biological and ecological standpoint, predator control accomplishes nothing in the long term. Predator control is a poliitcal response, not a biological or ecological response.

  5. Robert Hoskins Avatar

    I would like to share a letter to the editor I sent today to the Jackson Hole News & Guide regarding SFW’s “donation” of hay to the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.


    The most important thing I learned as a commissioned officer of the United States Army is that the first duty of a leader was to take care of the men who served under him. To take care of the troops is a sacred honor, and to fail in this sacred task is to dishonor oneself.

    When I left active service and re-entered the civilian world almost fifteen years ago, the first thing I noticed was that civilians have a curious notion of leadership. The civilian notion of leadership is that the leader’s first duty is to his own self-interest–that is, to his career–and to the interests of the organization for which he works, rather than to the welfare and support of the people working for the organization under his supervision. I quickly learned that honor has nothing to do with leadership in the civilian world. Politics is all.

    A fine example of this curious notion of civilian leadership was shown recently by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Mitch King in his decision to accept the so-called “donation” of hay to the National Elk Refuge from the Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, allegedly a sportsmen’s organization.

    Those who truly know elk and elk management from the inside out know full well that the claims by SFW and Wyoming G&F Commissioner Clark Allan about elk “starving” on the Refuge last winter have no scientific merit whatsoever. Mr. King knows this as well. The so-called “donation” of hay was a political stunt, without a doubt, but it had another goal as well: to force the Refuge to submit elk on federal land to greater control by the State of Wyoming and the livestock industry. And by “greater control,” I mean “management that increases the risk of disease.”

    Had Mr. King followed the precepts of honorable leadership, he would have fully backed up the Refuge and the Refuge staff in this dispute over elk and refused to accept this “donation” of hay. He would have forthrightly explained to the public and the press that SFW and Mr. Allan’s claims about elk management on the Refuge are illegitimate scientifically and historically.

    Unfortunately, Mr. King did not follow the precepts of honorable leadership; instead, he chose to legitimize the illegitimate. By so doing, he has done inestimable damage to elk conservation, the national wildlife refuge system, and the National Elk Refuge.

    Most of all, he let his troops down.

    Robert Hoskins

    For readers of this blog, I hope the meaning of this LTE is clear.

  6. Nathan Helm Avatar
    Nathan Helm

    Robert, I will reply to your first entry.

    SFW has not ignored nor had the inability to recognize reality and history in the Lolo zone of the Clearwater. In fact, we have worked hard, along with numberous entities to change management of the habitat in that region. The FS has been reticent to “work” to improve the habitat and we have joined the state and others in making their priority change our cause.

    So while this effort (habitat improvement) is in progress, predators have continued their role while the prey have steadily declined. As a portion of the management of wildlife in Idaho the Department of Fish and Game has increased predator harvest levels to allow for recovery.

    It seems to me that the concerted effort is appropriately holistic. Moreover it appears to be an effort to reasonably maintain a viable elk and predator population.

    I will grant that those supersensitive to the harvest of predators will never see past the fact that this tool is used as a portion of the overall management policy. SFW cannot see the benefits of habitat improvement without efforts to manage the other factors in our control. SFW-Idaho is eager to see it used but certainly does not consider it to be the panacea of game management.

  7. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Nate. I can’t understand how the predator population can be so high and the elk population so low.

    Numerous people have told me that the Department of Fish and Game has strongly promoted the take of bears and cougar in the area. Moreover, if the state’s petition demonstrated anything solid, it was that the black bears are the primary predator on elk calves.

    With the predator population, other the wolves, declining I think we would be seeing an increase in elk if predators were the limiting factor.

    Two questions:

    This project is on the state line of Idaho/Montana. How can this project work without the cooperation of Montana?

    Finally, what are you trying to get the Forest Service to do?

    On the positive side, I spent about 4 days in the area this summer, and I was amazed how many forest fires had burned since I completed research on Hiking Idaho in 2000. I speculate that natural habitat improvement may be on its way, and through the same method that created the great elk habitat back after the greats fire of 1910 and the smaller fires in the years afterward.

  8. RichGriz Avatar

    I see there is a reference in some of the responses to the collapse of the elk herds in the Idaho Fish Game (IDFG) and Lolo Zone. Basically it is the Lochsa River area is what they are talking about. There has been a great deal of misinformation being passed around regarding this game unit/zone and the the elk and black bears, cougars and wolves.

    The elk herds collapsed after a very hard winter and heavy snow pack. The decline of elk herds is due to the decline of the habitat. With lack of fire in this ecosystem the trees and shrubs have grown quite tall and effectively are shading out what elk eat. Its all about quality habitat and not about predators.

    IDFG started a program in 1999 (?) to reduce the numbers of black bears and cougars in this area supposedly to increase elk numbers. I sent an email to IDFG last year and asked for the accomplishment report that detailed out how that “project” was being managed and what they had done. IDFG directed me to a publication about black bears in this area of Idaho but I found the publication was not very helpful and it is almost impossible to know what is going on with this predator kill program in the Lolo Zone. About all I can really glean about black bears from this study is that they eat elk meat. ….oh really big suprise. The idea that black bears wipe out most of the elk calves every year is pure fantasy. If that were the case the elk population should be about nothing at this time. Black Bears are opportunists and they will eat what is available and about 30% (roughly speaking) of what they eat is vegetable matter.

    I obtained elk count data as well and i was appalled at how many years that IDFG has not conducted counts in this area. It is probably due to lack of funds or weather or something else? I was not able to some to any conclusions, looking at elk census data post 1999, as to whether or not elk numbers were increasing in the Lolo Zone. As a side light IDFG decreased the kill of Black Bears in a nearby game zone and guess what? Elk numbers have increased in that zone. So does that prove that having more Black Bears increases the number of elk?..hardly so. You won’t see IDFG running around bragging about how well that project has worked because it hasn’t.

    They could kill every fanged Black Bear, Cougar, Wolf, Martin, weasel in the LoLo Zone and elk numbers may never change. Its all about the habitat not the predators. Some groups say that by killing predators you can increase big game numbers but there is no science to back this up. The claims that are made in different parts of the West cannot be backed up.

    Elk harvests and counts have generally increased in Idaho in the face of rapidly increasing wolf numbers? How can this be? Its due to many many factors but the bottom line is 1/4 million acres of central Idaho burned in 2000 and created a whole bunch of great elk habitat.

    I would rather see a Black Bear and Cubs crossing the Lochsa River Road every once in awhile that have them killed and killed and killed.

  9. RichGriz Avatar

    I meant to say that 70-80% of what Black Bears eat is vegetable matter..depending on a variety of factors of course.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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