September 22, 2023

Outdoorsman History – the Real Reasons State F&G Management Was, and Still Is, Failing – Part I

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*Editor’s Note* The below article was first published in The Outdoorsman, Bulletin 55, Jan-Mar 2014. It is republished on this website with permission from the author. This is Part I of a three-part series. Part II will be republished soon.

By George Dovel:

The first time I worked with Idaho Fish and Game employees was when Idaho’s Aeronautics Director Chet Moulton called one afternoon and asked if I would fly my helicopter to the Owyhee County Court House at Murphy and fly two game wardens as close as I could land to an airplane crash site in the snow-covered Owyhee Mountains.

According to Moulton, the sole occupant of the Piper Tri-Pacer was flying on instruments after midnight on a flight plan from Nevada to Boise. To prevent a landing with limited equipment at Boise’s Gowen Field, the pilot turned right and headed for Mountain Home Air Base which was equipped for a GCA (Ground Controlled Approach).

After making the turn, the pilot flew into a rock face above the 8,000 foot level on War Eagle Mountain. Once the snow-covered wreck was located by a jet pilot, Moulton flew over the crash site and determined no one could have survived the impact.

The pilot’s family insisted Moulton organize a rescue team in case the pilot was still alive, but Moulton declined because of extreme weather and the probability that it would take several hours to extricate the pilot’s corpse from the tangled metal tubing in the wreckage. The younger game warden urged me to take them to the site anyway and said we would be back at the Murphy airstrip in an hour with the pilot’s body.

But the experienced game warden agreed with me that it made no sense to risk spending the night on a rocky cliff with storms that would make it difficult – if not impossible – to maintain minimum engine temperature for starting, while protecting the copter from snow and ice buildups. It took several hours the next day to extricate the pilot’s remains from the wreckage and when Moulton unzipped the body bag at Murphy the critics were silent.

Conflict between Game Managers and Biologists

My respect for the complex tasks performed by game wardens soon helped me to understand the conflict between experienced game wardens, and the inexperienced biologists who relied on theories they had been taught – rather than on facts learned from experience.

Although the game wardens endorsed my helicopter flying and I had plenty of other customers, the only times IDFG called on me were when my competitor couldn’t perform the task. For example, I was in Wyoming winding up a USGS survey when I received a message from IDFG asking if I could stop on the way back to Boise and herd some antelope into a trap.

When I arrived above the 8,000 foot level beside the Lost River Range, I was told these were the highest altitude antelope in Idaho. Later that day I learned that my local competitor had not been able to herd any antelope, and when he brought in a pilot from Wyoming to fly his helicopter, the pilot wrecked it trying to outmaneuver them.

In addition to gathering wild horses for Idaho ranchers for several winters after the BLM ordered them removed from federal land, I had learned how to herd antelope in Wyoming. Antelope can easily be teased into racing a helicopter, but as with any other herd of wild animals, it is necessary to establish herd control in order to make an escape later less likely.

Despite the intricate low-level flying at altitudes exceeding the helicopter’s ability to hover without a ground cushion of air, the biologist in charge insisted I carry a passenger. When I approached a large herd of antelope, they typically spread out in front of me, with a doe positioned on each end ready to run in opposite directions.

As I Was Establishing Control of the Herd My F&G Passenger Pulled out a Pistol and Shot an Antelope
The doe to my left began to lead the bunch that way and I quickly cut them off and just as quickly headed for the doe on the right who was now leading the herd in a new direction. As I halted that escape, my passenger suddenly pulled out a pistol and fired several bullets into her.

I told him he could either get out of the helicopter and walk back or sit quietly and leave his weapon in its holster. Once I gained control of the herd, I got them into the wings and several concealed F&G employees followed my previous instructions to help crowd them into the trap.

But as I was shutting down and securing the helicopter, the employees entered the trap and lined up on one side forcing the terrified antelope to repeatedly jump against the opposite side of the trap. They later explained they were trying to entangle the antelope in the trap netting so they could grab and restrain them. But for every antelope that became entangled in the taught netting, at least two more were on the ground with the telltale crook in their neck caused by lethal injury when they hit the net with their frenzied jumping.

Every winter I spent some spare time traveling with a well-known Idaho veterinarian who also treated captive wildlife, including those at the Boise Zoo. It was obvious this F&G crew did not know how to handle trapped antelope to minimize death losses.

I discussed the issue with the biologists and explained that it was much simpler and less harmful to let the animals settle down first instead of increasing their stress, and then use small “capture” nets to partition or immobilize them for handling and testing. My vet friend sometimes roped individual deer for treatment or testing at the zoo, but I would not suggest this except to a proficient roper.

IDFG Opposed Hiring Vet for 30 More Years

The biologists seemed more interested in hiding the dead and injured antelope from the public than testing more animals, and told me they had trapped plenty of antelope in my single run. I was happy to leave this destruction and I began to suggest to several legislators that an experienced veterinarian be added to the F&G payroll.

But there was strong opposition from IDFG to including a professional, trained in prevention of disease, to its “management.” Then as now, IDFG’s ability to convince most urban legislators of their alleged expertise was combined with giving favors to knowledgeable legislators who did not oppose the Department’s no-Vet agenda for another 30 years.

FWS Experiment Finds Pilot Makes a Difference

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hired me and a well-known helicopter flying service from Missoula to make a duplicate count of spawning steelhead and their redds (spawning beds) in north central Idaho, it proved something I already knew. One of two experienced observers flew with one pilot and then the other team flew and counted the same stretch of water. But even when we switched observers and which ship flew first, the one flying with me counted a few more fish and redds on each stretch.

The other pilot was a highly experienced mountain helicopter pilot who had my respect, but I had grown up interested in the wildlife I saw daily – whether I was hunting, fishing or trapping, or just looking for critters as I traveled or rested. Later as a pilot, I became accustomed to adjusting my altitude, airspeed, flight pattern and angle to be sure my passenger had the chance to see what I saw.

My Aerial Tracking Experience Pays Off

One early spring I was called to pick up an outfitter who was severely injured in a horse accident in rugged terrain in Wyoming’s Teton Wilderness. After he was safely in the hospital undergoing emergency surgery, I called my wife to tell her I’d be home the following day.

She told me the Deadwood Reservoir dam tender’s wife had started driving in from Boise via Scott Mountain Road after being told it was open, but had never arrived. Her vehicle was found on the road in deep snow before she even reached the Scott Mountain Ridge, and airplane and helicopter searchers had been unable to locate her tracks for two days and nights due to rain and additional snowfall.
I told my wife I’d be home that night and expected to find the missing person just after daylight the next morning. I flew over her vehicle at daylight and located and followed her vague ski trail via the occasional indentation or track protected by overhangs.

I saw where she had lost a ski on the Deadwood side of Scott Mountain and she had made the mistake of following it downhill on the steep mountain side. She knew not to drop into the impassable jungle that is the Deadwood River there, and had waited as airplanes and helicopters flew over her – but failed to see her in plain sight because they weren’t looking in the right place.

Less than 10 minutes after I flew over her vehicle, she was bundled in my helicopter, consuming warm food and liquid. A few minutes later we landed at the FS search headquarters at the Garden Valley airstrip for a medical check-up but they insisted, over her objections, that I fly her on to Boise for testing and observation at the hospital.

I’ve mentioned these incidents in an effort to help readers understand that regardless of a pilot’s hours and flying skill, only a small number of pilots are qualified to count or herd game animals, or know what to look for in difficult aerial searches. I knew that a back country woman in her 50s, driving alone on an un-traveled dirt road that could quickly become impassable to her vehicle, would probably carry emergency snow shoes or a pair of trail skis, and clothing for emergency survival.

Passengers Should Never Tell a Pilot How Heavy to Load the Aircraft or How to Fly

When I commented on the high altitude antelope trapping biologist’s insistence on my carrying a passenger, which interfered with the Bell 47G-2 operation at that altitude, I did not explain why I did not balk at carrying the extra weight. It was partly because a person familiar with the animals’ usual location and movements might save time and needless searching.

Also, I had logged a thousand take-offs and landings at or above 10,000 feet with a USGS survey crew using tellurometers to measure distances between mountain peaks in Wyoming. So over-revving the engine for 1-3 seconds or “milking” the pitch control to recover the rpm lost maneuvering in thinner air had become second nature.

Game Census Flights are Not Sightseeing Trips

An IDFG employee who had flown with me in a helicopter called and arranged for me to fly him on a “green-up” deer census in an airplane. The area was steep but generally lacked a dense tree canopy and I told him I would prefer to use a 1955 Cessna 180 which provided good front seat viewing and extra power and speed, rather than the Piper Super Cub I would normally have used.

But when I arrived at the airport to pick him up, he was accompanied by two biologists who he insisted would also fly as observers. I told him their added weight would handicap our ability to fly close enough and slow enough to accurately identify juveniles, but he began teasing me and said I could adjust my flight pattern to compensate.

It was a typically calm morning with only a handful of high scattered clouds and I was flying the grid patterns and leaving extra room to clear the saddles. But as I approached the next saddle from above, I suddenly encountered turbulence and a severe downdraft where neither would normally have existed without wind.

Instantly I recognized the mountain wave and tumbling air currents that were pulling us toward the ground but we were already out of other options. As the stall warning horn came on, I extended the flaps ten degrees which allowed us to squeak through the pass just above the treetops and cross the saddle.

I increased the vertical distance from obstructions which left us too high to easily differentiate between the fawns and adults, and we mutually agreed to end the flight prematurely rather than record inaccurate information. Yet one of my passengers reportedly later blamed my alleged lack of fixed-wing experience for my inability to keep them in position for an accurate youth-to-adult ratio count.

Mountain Waves Are One of Several Flight Hazards Most Biologists Know Nothing About

I doubt that most readers, including biologists who choose to fly game counts when conditions are less than ideal, have even heard of the natural phenomenon called “mountain wave”, although it is fairly common from late fall through spring – especially in Western States with prominent mountain ranges. Light plane pilots may experience the inability to climb over long distances, but unless they see and recognize the telltale lenticular (lens-shaped) clouds, they may not realize what is causing it.

Although I often saw lenticulars near the Owyhee Mountains south of Boise, my first episode in the U.S. happened when I was ferrying a helicopter to California from our repair facility at Boise. I checked with weather when I refueled at Reno, and the forecast for crossing Donner Summit at my altitude was clear with light winds.

But shortly after take-off as I was climbing to 8,000 feet to clear the 7,100 foot summit, Reno Weather broadcast a Pilot Report of severe turbulence from a jet pilot at 18,000 feet on the California side. I altered my course and climbed to 12,000 feet but after I crossed the summit I began to experience a severe downdraft that I couldn’t out-fly despite my light gross weight.
Continuing my attempt to climb, I headed for the closest open ground toward the ocean and finally stopped my uncontrolled descent at 3,000 feet above sea level.

The violent clear air turbulence that injured five United flight attendants in January 2014, and a separate incident that injured three United crew members and threw passengers against the ceiling in February, do not exist in some “waves” that still create long distance downdrafts.

The Facts about “Sightability” Counts of Big Game

I flew most of my big game counts north of the 40th parallel in Idaho and Wyoming and several in portions of Montana, Nevada and Utah. In most winters, there were one or several significant winter snowstorms where most of the deer and elk were brushed up during the storm, but then emerged in the warm sunshine and new snow to forage when the storm ended.

As a small group of mule deer travel through the new snow foraging, and then leave 17 bed depressions where they rest and ruminate (chew their cud), the pilot and observer expect to count 17 deer even before they see them. Under these ideal count conditions, it is possible for a trained observer to count deer and elk on most limited winter ranges with a very high degree of accuracy.


When IDFG flew the Unit 33 big game census in Jan-Feb of 1994, 97% of the live deer and elk were found in the handful of high-density subunits along the South Fork of the Payette River. There were no tracks in the fresh snow in the 5-25 foot depths above the river– and thus no live animals to count.

In 1974, New Zealand biologist Graeme Caughley insisted biologists needed a “sightabilty model” to make up for the game they failed to see when conducting aerial surveys. Since then, biologists and statisticians have been inventing and constantly re-designing sightability models that often magnify the errors rather than eliminate them.

The July 1987 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management published a study titled, “Visibility Bias During Aerial Surveys of Elk in Northcentral Idaho,” led by U of I Statistician “Oz” Garton. The study used the percent of radio-collared elk not seen during aerial surveys to estimate what percent of the total elk were not seen.

But Garton and his graduate student brazenly ignored 30 years of research by more than a dozen lead biologists. All of those researchers had concluded that lack of snow cover, search rate, animal behavior, and different observers were the primary causes of failure to observe a high percentage of known elk.

Instead, Garton’s graduate student wrote, and The Wildlife Society accepted and published the following Conclusion: (emphasis added)

“Multivariate* analysis indicated that visibility was significantly influenced by group size and vegetation cover. Snow cover, search rate, animal behavior, and different observers did not significantly affect visibility of elk. A sightability model was developed to predict the probability of observing elk groups during winter aerial counts.” (*a number of independent mathematical variables used in statistical analysis)

Aerial Survey Contradicts Statistician’s Conclusion

Yet I was hired to fly three long-time IDFG employees in a deer and incidental elk survey in Unit 32 that came up with a very different conclusion. Each of us was given a digital counter and asked to press once for each animal we observed – no more and no less.


As in the big desert country in SE Idaho, locating most of the deer and elk following a winter storm in Unit 32 is easy.

I was careful to let observers on both sides of the Cessna get a view of each deer and any elk that we observed, and I sought out older males – especially in brush or timber – that are not as prone to move when an aircraft first flies in their vicinity. The totals recorded by a game warden observer were identical to mine but the totals from the other two were very different.

Both were biologists but the first one recorded only two-thirds as many total animals as I had and the second recorded nearly twice as many as I had. Obviously neither had the ability to spot and count game animals.

Given ample time, most observers can spot running animals, but the vast majority of observers I have flown and some hunters I have guided, cannot see standing deer or elk in timber or brush – even when there is nothing but air between them and the animal. Yet those same people keep re-designing sightability models which they claim will correct the vastly different numbers the two biologists recorded in Unit 32.

Always Wait for Ideal Count Conditions

IDFG biologists and their career statistician from the University of Idaho claim they only see an average of 40-50% of the animals that exist under count conditions ranging from ideal to very poor. Why waste thousands of dollars trying to count under less than ideal conditions, and/or in mild winters when the animals are not concentrated in a few high-density subunits?

They normally count only a small number of high density subunits in a very small percentage of the total units once every 3-5 years. So waiting even a couple of years for ideal winter count conditions would keep Garton and his crew of biologists from constantly re-designing a sightability model that has never provided accuracy.

Because it is usually not possible to get an accurate ground count unless the animals are fenced, with many observers walking 15 or so feet apart, I learned that flying a handful of subunits either slower or twice under ideal count conditions as Alaska does, provides a reliable sightability correction when deemed necessary. I used a still camera or a self-leveling 8mm video camera to get better accuracy with good success on large herds to prevent undue stress.

Why Fly a Survey and Ignore the Results?

Although I am a strong advocate of accurate game counts, they are an obscene waste of time and money if the information is not used properly to correct deficiencies promptly. The deliberate destruction of Idaho’s Lolo Zone elk herd, beginning in 1985, provides a classic example of the fanatical “Do Nothing – Have Nothing” philosophy that replaced wild game management.

Following the statewide 10-year program including multiple bear harvests implemented by IDFG Director Joe Greenley in the 1970s, in a program lasting until 1985, biologists in Units 10 and 12 (the Lolo Zone) reported an elk population of 20,115. This allowed an annual harvest of 1430 elk and created an annual surplus of 805 elk.

The 1985 wolf prey research by Kaminski and Hansen calculated that the sustained 805 elk surplus would support 45 wolves at a maximum consumption of nearly 18 deer or elk each per year. But by 1989, F&G had increased the annual Lolo Zone elk harvest by 38% and eliminated bear control resulting in a decline of 24% in the Lolo elk population to 15,270 (see 25-year Lolo population chart).

[table caption=”25-Year 89% Destruction of Lolo Elk Herd” width=”500″ colwidth=”20|100|50″ colalign=”left|left|center|left|right”]
(Unit 10 and Unit 12 elk counted in separate years in 1994-2003)
Row One shows Lolo Zone total elk population
Row Two shows change from 805 surplus to 17,937 deficit

This meant the Lolo Zone could no longer support any wolves on a sustained basis – even if all hunter harvest was eliminated. But there were only 881 yearling bulls in the 1988-89 winter count to replace the 1,819 bulls that were subsequently killed during the 1989 hunting season, so the bull harvest should have been cut by more than half – but wasn’t (see Lolo Zone Elk Harvests below).

[table caption=”Selected Lolo Zone Elk Harvest” width=”500″ colwidth=”20|100|50″ colalign=”left|left|center|left|right”]
Elk Sex,1985,1989,1990,1992,1995,1996,1997,1998,2010
Total Harvest,1430,1975,1764,1647,1927,1237,593,194,124

Even if IDFG had cut the 1989 bull harvest in half, there were not enough elk to feed bears and other predators without reducing their population. Reducing predators to restore a healthy balance and shortening hunting seasons created the elk abundance in the early 1900s and again in the 1970s to 1985.

But four record Lolo Zone elk harvests in 1989, 1990, 1992 and 1995 averaging 1,828 each, and the lack of yearling bull elk and surviving calves to replace all adults that were dying is proof that Idaho biologists were either “brain dead” or deliberately destroying the Lolo Zone elk.

In the 1991-92 winter count, there were only 521 yearling bulls to replace the 1992 harvest of 1,447 bull elk. And in the 1994-95 count there were only 438 yearling bulls to replace the 1995 harvest of 1,759 bulls.

Although it is universally accepted that there must be at least 25 elk calves per 100 cows to justify any take by hunters, the Lolo Zone calf-to-cow ratio was only 19.6:100 in 1991/92 and dropped to 14.5:100 in 1995/96.

Managing Wildlife Requires Math, Common Sense

Interpreting the above information is not rocket science, or practicing so-called “ecosystem management” or some other theory that is not based on science or fact. It requires only use of common sense and grade-school math – made even easier with a simple pocket calculator.

On April 30, 1996, IDFG Elk Researcher George Pauley provided a memo to Clearwater Region Wildlife Manager Jay Crenshaw stating F&G had over-harvested bull elk in 11 of the 12 Clearwater Units. He said it caused a 25% decline in bull numbers from 1993-1996, and warned that calf recruitment (survival) had declined a “dramatic” 34% in those units, causing a 41% decline in yearling (replacement) bull numbers.

Pauley’s memo warned Crenshaw the downward trend in elk would continue unless significant harvest management changes were implemented in 11 Units.

But Crenshaw ignored two decades of Lolo Zone elk research confirming that lack of natural forage was not the problem, and increased the number of cow-calf hunt permits in the Lolo Zone from 350 to 1900 in 1996.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Crenshaw left the same number of cow/calf permits in 1997. But despite unlimited either-sex archery elk seasons from 8/30-9/24 and the same bull seasons, and cow/calf hunts from 10/10 through 11/30, hunters only killed 277 cows and 316 bulls.

In 1998 the same either-sex archery seasons continued, but the number of “any-weapon” hunters was limited and all late elk hunting ended on Nov 3. The total kill reported by hunters in the Lolo Zone was only 194 elk, yet there still weren’t enough replacement yearling bulls and the cow-to-calf ratio was only 6.6:100.

IDFG, Commission Ignore Minimums

New 1998-2003 Management Plans for deer and elk were published but the minimum Lolo Cow Elk Objective was, and still is, based on the record low 1997 and 1998 counts. The fact that the published minimums were meaningless to Department officials and the Commission became obvious near the end of a Commission meeting when Commissioner Fred Wood, M.D. addressed Commissioner Richard Meiers, D.D.S.

He told the Commissioners it was unethical to end the meeting without taking action to correct the critical elk problems in the Clearwater Region, and told Meiers they both would be guilty of malpractice if they did that in their medical practice. Yet none of the other Commissioners indicated a desire to even briefly discuss possible solutions.

In 2010 there were only 23 yearling bulls to replace the 124 that were killed by hunters and there were only 13.4 calves per 100 cows. The calculated 2011 and 2012 published Lolo Zone elk harvests were 83 and 100, but no Lolo census info has been published for four years.

For half a century the Clearwater Region provided 45% or more of the elk that were harvested in Idaho. At the risk of overwhelming readers with too much mixed information in a single article, I selected the Lolo Zone as an example because: 1) every adult hunter who hasn’t been living in a vacuum has heard of it; and 2) the exact same thing is happening in other units that formerly provided abundant wild game for thousands of hunters to harvest.

IDFG’s Bighorn Sheep Fiasco – another Example of Wildlife Exploitation to Increase IDFG Revenue
Several times I assisted IDFG Biologist Jim Morgan in his study of Bighorn sheep near Challis, and he kept hinting he wanted to observe sheep in a wilderness situation. I offered to provide the transportation, food, and a tent camp, and be his free assistant to study the largest Bighorn population in Idaho and he quickly accepted.


Photo taken by author while landing a plane on Soldier Bar, a Forest Service airstrip located on a north-slope bench on the south side of lower Big Creek in the Idaho Primitive Area – designated the “Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness” by Congress in 1984.

Soldier Bar airstrip is about in the center of the Frank Church Wilderness Area, which contained 2,500-3,000 Bighorn sheep long before graduate biologist Dwight Smith studied them from 1949-1952. Looking west in the photo above, Big Creek flows in toward you on the right side about halfway up the photo, and makes a gradual turn exiting the photo near the bottom right corner.

The tiny bit of rocky south-slope hillside that can be seen to the right (north) of Big Creek is part of the winter range inhabited by both sexes in the winter – but only by ewe-lamb groups the rest of the year. An estimated 95% of the land seen in this photo is summer range for ram bands – including the largest one for years.

Every March, while there was still some snow on Soldier Bar, a bachelor band numbering 10-12 rams would cross Big Creek and spend two or more weeks on Soldier Bar until the sun got higher and melted most of the snow. Then one day the rams would all suddenly stand up and follow their leader into the high country.

I set a single well-equipped wall tent on the South side of Soldier Bar and rented a Cessna 180 with retractable skis to pick up Morgan in Challis and fly him to the Bar, which still had snow covering it. At that time the short runway headed straight toward a patch of trees left of the center of the photo, and landing on that one-way strip on skis with a sudden tailwind before touchdown was the beginning of a learning experience for my passenger.

Each day we walked the half mile of trail down to Big Creek with our gear loaded on stout aluminum pack boards, and spent the day counting or photographing sheep. We also captured several ewes and tested and collared them for future observation.

Because I had outfitted from the Taylor Ranch for several years and put up hay to feed my stock for several winters, I spent a lot of time observing the bighorns on an open hillside with three benches across from the ranch. In most of those years, a 2-3 inch snow in the high country in Sept. briefly drove the large ram band down to the ranch.

Although that storm made killing a ram like the proverbial “shooting fish in a barrel,” I was very aware of the need to preserve several of the older rams in each bachelor band. Each spring the dominant ram continued to lead the young rams into the high country, teaching them how and where to escape predators and get fat on the north-slope forage before the Nov.-Dec. breeding season.

Even when I was guiding two return deer and elk hunters who always hunted together, I allowed only one of them to kill one old ram in the “Soldier Bar” band when early snow forced them onto the ranch during the first two weeks of September. The other hunter had to settle for a 5-1/2-year-old-ram from another less accessible location, which was legal – but hardly a trophy.

1952 Study Found a Healthy Bighorn Population

When Dwight Smith conducted his three-year Bighorn study, in late winter he counted an average of 75 rams and 40 surviving lambs for each 100 ewes in the Idaho Primitive Area. In 1952 he suggested allowing a limited number of hunters to hunt Bighorns during the first 14 days in September, but restricting them to killing only mature rams at least 8-1/2 years old.

That meant hunters would concentrate only on old trophy rams, some of which would probably die of natural causes anyway the following winter.

By not killing the 7-1/2 year olds, there would be at least one mature eight-year-old the following spring to lead the bachelor band into the high country.

Everything about Smith’s recommendation made sense, except for Sept. storms, to hunt a “trophy” species in scattered spots that lack a huntable population. Yet IDFG rejected it because “it did not provide a ‘viable’ income.”

F&G Approved Unlimited Number of Hunters in 1956

F&G initially supported 50 tags in the two-week season for a four-year trial, from 1952-1955 – but with only a minimum 3/4-curl rather than protecting all but trophy rams. Nearly 50 hunters each year killed an average of 18 rams so F&G began a general two-week open season in 1956.

As hunters began bringing home more old rams, the number of tags IDFG sold quickly increased from 131 in 1956 with 20 rams reported killed, to 379 in 1959 with 59 rams reported killed. During the five years from 1959-1963 the average number of rams killed each year was 55, and tags sold increased to 552.

However the bachelor bands were being depleted when they came down to winter range early, and some juveniles were remaining with the ewes and lambs and breeding their mothers and sisters. When I brought documentation of this and the poor ewe-lamb ratios to the F&G Commissioners, IDFG’s Big Game Manager told them the rams had changed their migration and some of the lambs were concealed where I couldn’t see them.

I then spent many hours photographing those sheep from late fall through the following spring lambing. The ram band from Soldier Bar had been slaughtered after I quit outfitting and the decline in lambs was obvious.

But when I showed this new documentation to the Commission and requested they restore limited controlled hunts, the Big Game Manager insisted I had altered the photographic evidence to suit my own agenda. This is when I decided to invite Jim Morgan to perform the counts and gather his own evidence.

When Morgan counted the lower Big Creek Bighorns on their winter range in early March, he recorded a ratio of only 19 mostly-young rams and 13 lambs per 100 ewes. This was only one-fourth as many rams and one-third as many lambs as Dwight Smith had counted before the 3/4-curl September general season was implemented.


Former IDFG Bighorn Sheep Biologist Jim Morgan on lower Big Creek. He is measuring immobilizing drug for insertion into Cap-Chur gun dart prior to capturing ewe for tests and collaring. Photo by author.

The remaining snow had recently melted from the open South slope benches across Big Creek from the Taylor Ranch, and Morgan photographed rivulets of water running down the steep south slope below the first bench. He explained to me that this was evidence of excessive use by livestock, and possibly by deer or sheep.

In 11 years I had never seen any animals on that lower steep South-facing slope. Even the Bighorns walked along or beside a gradual switchback trail on the west side to reach the lower bench.

Rather than explain that, I told him we would return in three weeks and he could photograph that steep hillside again for comparison. Then I walked him down a portion of the lower Middle Fork of the Salmon River below the mouth of Big Creek and showed him acres of bluebunch wheatgrass, and other native grasses emerging, combined with thousands of virtually untouched curl-leaf mountain mahogany bushes (“trees”).

Three weeks later after I flew Morgan back in to Soldier Bar, we hiked to the steep slope across from Taylor Ranch where he had photographed the rivulets. But instead of the erosion damage he had predicted, he saw a smooth new stand of healthy native grass emerging.

I gave Morgan an old photo I had taken of 11 rams waiting on Soldier Bar for the snow to melt before heading into their high country range for ~seven months of the year. Then I described how rams from two bachelor bands sounded like two 2X4s hitting together during their head-butting contests on the rocky ridges overlooking the Taylor Ranch benches.

And later, when the older rams followed a ewe in estrous in single file, I told him how one would viciously slam any younger ram broadside that dared to join the procession. I described an old blue ram with a crooked hind leg that forced him to walk with a limp, yet he was the undisputed leader of the Soldier Bar Bachelor Band until I allowed a hunter to take him.

I told Morgan that the young rams he saw with small ewe-lamb groups remained with them rather than head for the high country because there were no older rams leading bachelor bands for them to follow. Hunters found those same rams with the same ewe-lamb groups when the season opened in September as well as during the breeding season in November and December.