December 11, 2023

Outdoorsman History (Cont.) – the Real Reasons State F&G Management Was, and Still Is, Failing

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By George Dovel (Republished on this website with permission from the author. All rights reserved.)

In Bulletin No. 55 Part 1 of 3, I described how I provided Bighorn Sheep Biologist Jim Morgan everything he needed to observe and document the ongoing destruction of Idaho’s wild Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep population in central Idaho. For several years, Morgan had been conducting a study of the alleged impact to a small group of bighorns near Challis from domestic sheep and cattle grazing, and from abundant mule deer browsing on the shared winter range of the bighorns.

As with other graduate students conducting similar research on other species, Morgan had recorded the seasonal movement of his bighorns and measured forage utilization. But because of financial limitations and the inherit difficulty even locating and identifying predator kills, much less measuring the impact of predation, he accepted his professors’ flawed teaching that predation was always self-limiting – and thus beneficial in the long run.

On our trips into the Idaho Primitive Area in a Cessna 180 with retractable skis, I helped him discover for himself and then record the causes of the decline in Idaho’s primary Bighorn population.

General September 3/4-curl Ram Season Allowed Too Many Rams to Be Killed by Hunters on Winter Range

I told Morgan that a 2-3 inch early September snowfall in the high country during most years caused the ram bands to return to winter range prematurely. Although they traveled back to the high country once the storm was over, these rams were extremely vulnerable to hunters when they briefly showed up on the outfitter ranch pastures on lower Big Creek and the lower Middle Fork of the Salmon.

Once the bachelor bands were virtually eliminated on Big Creek and the Middle Fork by hunters, with no mature rams to lead the young rams into the high country in the spring, many remained with the ewe-lamb groups where they were born. During the early pre-rut there was little or no dominance established and the young rams were breeding their mothers and sisters.

They soon produced a population with inbred sheep that were more susceptible to diseases, including pneumonia triggered by stress that involved parasites normally found in their internal organs.

Every winter as lion hunter Rob Donley and I traveled up and down lower Big Creek and the Middle Fork of the Salmon, we observed more bighorn ewes in poor condition being harassed by coyotes and constantly coughing. They were described as having “pneumonia-lungworm complex,” a common term used by biologists, who lacked medical training and chose to ignore the evidence that their harvest of too many mature rams from a limited population had caused the cycle of destruction)

Instead of limiting the number of hunters and allowing them to kill only a trophy ram (8-1/2 year or older) as recommended by Bighorn Sheep Researcher Dwight Smith in 1952, greedy IDFG officials settled on a general open season with any 3/4-curl ram legal to harvest in 1956.

Excessive Kill Stats Increased License, Tag Income

Smith had recorded a healthy late winter average of 75 rams and 40 surviving lambs per 100 ewes in the sheep population where a few hunters had legally harvested a handful of older rams. But 16 years later, when Morgan counted the lower Big Creek and lower Middle Fork bighorns on their winter range, he recorded a ratio of only 19 mostly young rams and 13 lambs per 100 ewes.

From 1968-1971 Morgan tried to convince Game Division Chief Roger Williams to close the general sheep season and allow only 7-1/2 year-old or older rams, or those scoring at least 140 Boone & Crocket points, to be harvested by a limited number of hunters. But the extra money from increases in the number of general season bighorn tags sold, prompted Williams to ignore the advice.

Yet during a 1970 F&G Commission meeting, when I asked Williams why he didn’t follow his Bighorn Biologist’s suggestions, he lied and said he had never heard such suggestions. Then in a taped meeting with Outdoorsman staff and the two top IDFG officials, Director Dick Woodworth said Idaho bighorn sheep were declining anyway, so hunters had just as well hunt and kill them.

We reminded him and Asst. Director Robert Salter that the combination of Idaho Code Secs. 36-103 and 104 require the F&G Commission to shorten or close seasons when populations would be adversely affected by hunting. But Salter responded by insisting their job was to provide “hunting opportunity” – rather than animals to hunt.

IDFG Director Ignores “Perpetuate Wildlife” Law – Sells Increased “Hunting Opportunity” Instead

In 1968 Woodworth had published a report titled, “Progress in Game Management by Expansion of Hunting Opportunity.” The report listed nine ways he accomplished this, including dramatically increasing season lengths; killing more deer, elk, sheep, goats and pheasants; killing more female deer, elk and pheasants; and allowing from 2 to 5 mule deer to be killed in one year by a single hunter.

The report stated his first priority: “1. Expanding Information and Education work at all levels in order to gain public acceptance of this accelerated progressive program of improving the hunting opportunity.” The propaganda was necessary because concerned citizens – not F&G officials – were and still are the people who value healthy wild game and fish populations above the empire building of the people they pay to manage game and fish.

Morgan “Blew the Whistle” on F&G Mismanagement

Morgan resigned from IDFG in March of 1971 and published an article in Boise’s Intermountain Observer, soundly condemning the agency for its failure to properly manage wildlife. He wrote that Department officials had deliberately mismanaged the state’s big game animals and described IDFG as “…an organization that has become so preoccupied with rules, paperwork and its failing public image that it often loses sight of its reason for existing.”

He said the Game Division was in particular trouble and had reached a point where “good researchers resign themselves to permanent paid retirement when they realize research is done for public appearances sake and that the Department is not interested in listening to or acting on research recommendations.”

He charged Game Division Chief Roger Williams with developing an irrational obsession to bust him out of IDFG after refusing to acknowledge the need for ending the general sheep season in Idaho. He added that long after other IDFG biologists had accepted his data, the Game Chief refused any proposal for a limited controlled hunting season with the claim, “We have an obligation to provide ‘hunting opportunity’ to hunters.”

IDFG Admitted Falsifying Known Harvests for 10 yrs.

About the time Morgan resigned, a 1968-1971 Legislative Performance Audit of IDFG by James Defenbach was released. It found that Williams and his Game Division biologists had knowingly published highly exaggerated big game population and harvest statistics for the preceding 10 years in order to hide rapidly declining populations and harvests from the public.

IDFG Director Woodworth was forced to resign almost immediately by newly elected governor Cecil Andrus. He was replaced with Nevada Big Game Manager Joe Greenley, who ordered the 10 years of exaggerated phone survey hunter harvest estimates be removed from the records, and insisted his biologists publish only the actual animals reported killed by hunters.

Morgan’s Plan to Transplant B.C. Bighorns to Restore Healthy “Native” Sheep Was Halted by F&G Officials

While Sheep Biologist Morgan was still with IDFG, he cited a 1961-67 Bighorn study by Dr. Valerius Geist, which documented that mature eight-year-old rams sired the lambs in healthy wild sheep herds. Geist, the undisputed authority on North American wild sheep, emphasized the importance of maintaining bachelor bands numbering from two to several dozen rams each, and led by mature animals experienced at avoiding cougars while utilizing the lush north-slope forage in the high country.

Morgan understood the importance of importing healthy bighorns that had no recent history of pneumonia die-offs, in order to restore genetically healthy herds in the Idaho back country. Yet Morgan’s Observer article stated that IDFG officials had deliberately prevented him from keeping an appointment with British Columbia Game personnel to transplant two truckloads of 25 healthy bighorns into central Idaho.

Transplanting those healthy animals into the Middle Fork of the Salmon Population Management Unit* appeared to be biologically sound. With no roads, no livestock, and limited access by humans, the odds of creating another pneumonia die-off in that PMU appeared remote. (* the PMU that contained nearly half of the native Bighorns found in the six Idaho PMUs that still had sheep)

Biologist Ignored Transmission of Disease

But instead of culling any native Bighorns that were still coughing on the Middle Fork PMU winter range, and replacing them with genetically healthy breeding stock from a herd with no evidence of pneumonia, the biologists pretended “nature” would correct the disaster they caused.

Their obsession with restoring and protecting what they perceive are pre-Columbian plants and predators, while claiming that will achieve so-called “healthy” ecosystems, cannot be defended scientifically or logically. But even before there was any organized group of sheep hunters to advocate for bighorns, state biologists joined USFS and BLM activists to dump several dozen bighorns where they had been extinct for 25-75 years.

The Outdoorsman had emphasized that allowing unlimited killing of males when there are too few animals to allow general season hunting, had resulted in serious inbreeding. And because inbreeding caused deformities in elk transplanted near Pocatello, Idaho, biologists made sure the bighorns they transplanted came from multiple sources. Yet they ignored the increased potential of introducing diseases from the many sources.

According to BLM Technical Bulletin 97-14, state wildlife biologists from Washington, Oregon and Idaho made 35 transplants or transfers of 451 Bighorns to Hells Canyon locations from April 1971 to Feb. 1995. Specific herds in the six states and one Province where the sheep originated were listed, but there were no tests for disease.

The Bulletin lists seven reported disease die-offs in Hells Canyon from 1971-72 to 1995-96. Several of the first transplants simply disappeared without a trace, but the 1983-84 die-offs were so severe in sheep on the Idaho side of the Snake River, it prompted Idaho legislators to enact a new Code Section, 36-106, with a list of requirements to meet before transporting big game into or within the State.

Many surviving adult Idaho sheep from the 1983-84 Hells Canyon die-off were still disease carriers in 1990, and the Salmon River Panther Creek bighorns that were originally the source were also dying from pneumonia. But instead of testing and culling the disease carriers in Hells Canyon, IDFG transplanted 30 sheep from a new source in Wyoming, pretending that would somehow halt the spread of disease.

Of course it did not and most of the 30 soon became infected and died. A series of Amendments to I.C. Sec. 36-106 included the requirement for IDFG to submit a 1990 plan to protect bighorn sheep from disease.

One More Plan That Was Never Achieved

That 10-yr. plan included a proposed 10% increase in Idaho’s Rocky Mountain Bighorns from 3,850 to 4,235, and a 20% increase in Idaho’s California Bighorns from 1,185 to 1,422. But as the IDFG graph by Frances Cassirer shows, instead of the planned 10% increase in Rocky Mtn. Bighorns, there was a 55% population decrease during the next 10 years – with a 43% decline in total harvest.


From 1990-98, Idaho’s Rocky Mountain Bighorn population declined from 3,850 to 1,710 and the California Bighorns south of the Snake River increased from 1,240 to 1,460. But the 2008-2010 counts revealed only 1,873 Rocky Mtn. Bighorns and 964 California Bighorns for a total loss of 2,253 Idaho Bighorns (-44.3%) in 20 years.

The massive 1995-96 die-off of several hundred bighorns in Hells Canyon occurred in all three states (Idaho, Oregon and Washington). It followed transplanting three loads totaling 50 Bighorns from Cardinal River, Alberta to three separate locations in Oregon.

The die-off happened despite a tremendous increase in funding resulting from Idaho’s Bighorn Auction Tag approved in 1987 and the Bighorn Lottery Tag approved in 1991. Idaho’s Wildlife Health Vet. was approved in 1990, with specific instructions and funding to determine the cause(s) of ongoing Bighorn death losses.

Vet. Said Transplanted Bighorns Caused Death Loss

Former Idaho State Veterinarian Dr. Bob Hillman was the wild game/livestock disease expert who addressed what really caused that major die-off. He advised that the bighorns transplanted from Alberta had experienced a pneumonia die-off and said that one or several of the adults that survived were now immune to the disease but were still carriers of the disease.

He pointed out that these immune carriers could pass the disease to their offspring for several years, as well as to other bighorns that did not have that immunity. The failure of the Hells Canyon biologists to both check the recent history and test the animals for the disease and for antibodies made them responsible for the die-off.

But without any evidence to substantiate their claim, the biologists first insisted the bighorn die-off was caused by exposure to domestic sheep. When Dr. Hillman pointed out they had not documented the presence of bighorns and domestic sheep in the same area, a Forest Service employee said one or more feral goats seen with the bighorns had caused the die-offs.

Researchers were unable to induce pneumonia in two bighorns even when they injected disease pathogens in a goat and confined the bighorns in the same pen until the wild sheep had the same strain of bacteria. Yet the 1997 BLM Bulletin still lists the 1995-96 die-offs as probably caused by feral goats based on circumstantial evidence.

Research Results Caused Tensions

Using the latest techniques in cooperation with other states, the Caine Research facility and a University of Idaho microbiologist studied thousands of samples from wild and domestic sheep, bison, antelope, elk, moose, mountain goats and domestic goats and cattle. They learned that bighorns harbor disease-causing bacteria within their own herds and can easily be infected by bighorns introduced from other herds.

They also learned that bighorns carry many strains of the Pasteurella bacteria and one bighorn may not be affected by the same strain that is lethal to another. These tools allowed F&G biologists to check potential sheep transplants for the threat of disease transmission immediately rather than wait two weeks for cultures to identify the pathogens.

Instead of being thankful for these giant steps in preventing future die-offs, IDFG officials resented the implication that their actions may have caused some of the disease outbreaks in Hells Canyon. Yet the FY 2004 “Hells Canyon Bighorn Sheep Progress Report” by IDFG Biologist Cassirer admitted that from 1997-2003 bighorn numbers increased as high as 125 percent in herds with no transplants and declined as much as 50 percent in herds with transplants during that period.

This could also explain reports from various states where bighorns share the same range with domestic sheep for 30 or more years without disease – yet suddenly have a die-off when other bighorns are moved into the area.

Repeated Die-offs Keep Happening in the West

The annual cost of transplanting and monitoring 50 bighorns per year in the Hells Canyon area from 1997 to 2002, was estimated at $241,000-$266,000 – an average of $5,070 per sheep per year. Yet how are the cost-to-benefits calculated when more sheep are dying each year than are being saved?

With ongoing transplants, the 1990-1997 increase from 1,240 to 1,460 California Bighorns in Southern Idaho looked promising until a couple of cougars found they were an easy meal. But the current decline to ~964 reflects what is really happening throughout the Western States.

From the Pacific Coast to the Dakotas, bighorn biologists are seeing the results of their ignoring science and causing countless die-offs in bighorn populations that once appeared healthy. In 2005 I briefly complimented the Bighorn Lottery because it provided money for legitimate research to reduce the die-offs.

But instead of first culling the bighorns that were still coughing and those that were tested and found to be disease carriers, the money was used for penned quasi-studies that blamed domestic sheep or goats for every one of the pneumonia die-offs. That was like blaming inadequate winter forage for mule deer die-offs caused by excessive stress or extreme deep-snow winters – it simply provided a handy excuse rather than a solution.

Aggressive Culling – The Tool for Recovery

Earlier this month (i.e. October 2014) Idaho and Washington biologists used helicopter net gunners to capture eight infected bighorn ewes, a second generation remnant of the Black Butte herd that numbered ~215 when the 1995-96 die-off in Hells Canyon occurred. These eight Washington ewes had almost no surviving lambs for years so why were they not culled sooner?

In 2010, bighorn sheep in the Yakima River Canyon were dying of pneumonia and Wash. Biologists aggressively culled them to prevent the disease from perpetuating itself. They were successful and the herd is rebuilding itself with good lamb survival.

Regardless of whether the disease was triggered by domestic sheep, transplanted wild sheep or any of multiple stress factors, aggressive culling appears to be the only logical tool to achieve recovery.

A New Definition of a “Trophy”?

In 2007 IDFG convinced the legislature to throw out the 3/4-curl minimum horn size requirement and allow bighorn permit holders to kill “any ram”. They claimed they did this to simplify enforcement and to be uniform with Washington and Oregon regulations in Hells Canyon.


Male lambs are classified as yearlings once they are older than one month (IDFG Photo)

A 2012 photograph of the Lincoln Cliffs bachelor band in NE Washington shows 24 rams with more than half of them mature adults, yet only one permit was issued for that band through 2013. That was increased to two permits in 2014 only after the band reached an all time high and with additional human development scheduled in the area.

By comparison Idaho issued 12 permits for Middle Fork of the Salmon Unit 27-1 after counting only 14 mature rams among the bighorns in this Unit. There are four public airstrips and two private outfitter airstrips for access in this wilderness unit and outfitter/guide services are available throughout the unit.

Hunter odds of harvesting a mature ram are excellent in the Lincoln Cliffs and other NE Washington units while the odds of harvesting even a young ram average only 24% in the Idaho Wilderness unit. Idaho’s emphasis on selling maximum hunting opportunity in all but Trophy Unit 11 is designed to increase revenue rather than restore healthy Rocky Mountain Bighorn populations.

The millions of dollars that have been dumped into Hells Canyon and dozens of other Bighorn restoration projects for the past 43 years have resulted in declining diseased populations that erupt with increasing frequency. Rational people suggest it is long past time to stop subsidizing a few trophy rams for a handful of millionaires at the expense of the citizens who share ownership of the resource and are entitled to intelligent management.

The Origin of Our Game Management Failures

In 1940 the Department of Interior combined two separate bureaus into one Fish and Wildlife Service and hired Ira Gabrielson to run it. Shortly after World War II ended, Gabrielson resigned from government service and was hired as President of the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute for the next 24 years, and served as Chairman of its Board after that.

The manufacturers of the arms, ammunition and equipment necessary to fight wars on two sides of the world suddenly found themselves without a customer. They became major contributors supporting the WMI and Gabrielson returned the favor by helping create a massive market for their merchandise and services.

He quickly conducted surveys in 31 states and two Canadian provinces and provided game commissioners with written directions on how to restructure their operation as well as insisting they must invite thousands of non-resident hunters and fishermen to harvest the trophy big game and fish that were “destroying the habitat in remote areas.”

Writers in Outdoor magazines were suddenly invited to free trophy hunting and fishing trips in return for their writing stories about “the big one that didn’t get away”. Idaho State Game Wardens who had spent 40 years carefully restoring our game species, expressed grave concerns about the pressure this massive ad campaign was going to put on the game in the road-less Primitive and Wilderness Areas.

In Idaho’s 21st Biennial Report published on June 30, 1946, the State Game Warden warned that the number of non-resident big game hunters had doubled in one year, and questioned how long the limited back country game and fish populations could meet this obviously increasing demand. But the F&G Commissioners and Biologists made no effort to limit the increases that soon exceeded 1,000%, with Gabrielson pointing out how the extra non-resident dollars would benefit the agency’s budget.

When the agency was re-organized by Idaho citizens in 1938 to meet criteria established by the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, there were 73 employees; 11 headquarters personnel, 38 game wardens, 20 fish hatchery personnel and four technicians – the first with biological training that were hired to design projects that qualified for matching Pittman-Robertson funds.

The sole function of these four technicians, soon referred to as “biologists”, was to design programs that would enable IDFG to receive the maximum amount of matching federal excise tax dollars. Over the years the agency has used the code word “viability” to reflect the maximum revenues it can receive from each alternative that is proposed for any project.

For example, when they selected the A/B Tag System and Limited Controlled Hunts instead of the two most desirable options chosen by hunters, they deliberately ignored their direction from the Commission.

When you read the startling mandate from both the F&G Commission and the biologists’ direct boss, Virgil Moore, on the following pages, you will understand why it is so important to assist the F&G Commission by monitoring every action from these biologists to determine whether they are still violating Idaho law, or whether they are obeying the directives they received from the Commission and from Director Moore in September.

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