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Jake Howard

Jake Howard was the executive director of the Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board for the State of Idaho when we conducted this interview in 2016. He has since retired.

Jake Howard

Jake Howard

Let's start with the difference between an outfitter and a guide.

In Idaho an outfitter is a business entity. And sometimes it's a sole proprietor, mom and pop operation; but in many instances, it's a corporation. And then that business entity will employ people, designated agents who basically are the operator of the business, and then they hire, employ guides who provide the services to the public for the business entity.

So the outfitters can fire the guides, but the guides can't fire the outfitters?

That's exactly right. And the outfitters are responsible for the guides' activities and what they do.

And I'm guessing there's more turnover among guides than outfitters.

Yeah. The business entities don't turn over significantly. We have about 400 outfitters that we license every year, and we maybe have ten sales or outfitters going out of business. And we license about 2,000 to 2200 guides every year. And within the river industry we have a fairly good turnover; it may be 30 percent or so. And the hunting outfitting industry, the land based outfitters that provide hunting and recreation, trail rides and that, it's significantly less; it's not that high at all.

So why does the licensing board exist?

We were organized about 60 years ago. We were one of the very first licensing boards in the United States. And several other states have developed licensing boards similar to what we do. But our purpose is to oversee the outfitting and guiding industry for the benefit of the public: the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

And then we have a conservation requirement. We very closely with the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Game Department and Department of Lands. We work very collaboratively with those agencies to fulfill the mission assigned to us by Idaho law.

Outfitter Bill Bernt on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Courtesy of Steph Bernt Ellis.

Outfitter Bill Bernt on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Courtesy of Steph Bernt Ellis.

So Idaho is a leader in this area?

I think we are. Many states don't license outfitters and guides. And we probably go a little further than other states. Some of our neighboring states license outfitters, but they don't license guides.

And then we also assign unique operating areas, where the other states will let multiple outfitters operate in a given area. And then we limit the number of boating outfitters, the outfitters that provide whitewater trips or fishing on Idaho's rivers or lakes; we limit the number of them.

For an example, we just went through a rulemaking to set the number of outfitters that can operate on the South Fork of the Snake River. We did that collaboratively with the BLM and the Forest Service. And the legislature just adopted an updated rule.

Outfitters, particularly the land based outfitters, have unique operating areas, and particularly for elk and deer. We do a little bit of overlap for bear and cougar. There are some issues that we've had with predation in the elk population that we've worked together with the Forest Service and the Fish and Game Department in the Clearwater National Forest, Nez Perce Clearwater National Forest. And we've allowed some overlaps up there for outfitters to hunt bears and cougars to help reduce the predation on elk calves.

So what is a typical incident that would involve the licensing board? What do you find yourself primarily dealing with?

Oh, it's mostly with the guides. There's substance abuse issues, and there will be an occasional physical altercation. Every year, out of the 2,000 guides we license, we may bring 15 or 20 to 30 guides in on various things. But, typically, it's a substance abuse/drug related issue. Occasionally, we'll have an outfitter who will be caught operating out of the area, or they endanger the public safety. We just had an outfitter at the last board meeting that was operating out of his area. And the board put him on a five year restrictive probation and fined him a fairly significant fine. So that's the kind of stuff we deal with.

Outfitter Steve Burson with his two guides, Will Matthews and Cory Ward, in the Frank Church wilderness. Photo by Bruce Reichert.

Outfitter Steve Burson with his two guides, Will Matthews and Cory Ward, in the Frank Church wilderness. Photo by Bruce Reichert.

So you really are working to protect the public versus the outfitter?

Yes, absolutely. Our concern is, first of all, the outfitted public, and then the public at large. There's a mutual benefit to the state of Idaho to properly manage the resource and work collaboratively with the agencies to make sure that the public in the backcountry is protected.

Now, with that being said, often outfitters are out there to help the public that are not outfitted public. Somebody gets in harm's way, the outfitters will provide services to those people. An outfitter has got first aid training, and their guides have got first aid training. And they have the equipment and horses or boats to deal with it. But they're there for the public benefit. It's to help the public. And, oftentimes the public is paying them a fee. But they work with the public at large. They provide a public service.

Would you want your son or daughter in the outfitting industry?

Actually, my son is involved in the backcountry industry. But I would tell them, first of all, they have to be "people" people. They have to provide customer service and be attentive to the public that they serve, and it's not always their paying clients.

But I think the other thing is that they need to be ready to go to work. Outfitting and guiding is very hard work. You're in the backcountry, it's very demanding, you're providing services to people that need services, and it's hard work.

And then, also, they have to deal with the regulatory agencies, the Forest Service and BLM, and need to understand the processes they have to go through to be federally permitted and licensed by the state. And, you know, it's so I would tell them that, you know, first of all, you have to be people oriented. You have to be prepared to work pretty hard. There's certainly opportunity in the backcountry to get yourself into trouble.

So what kind of training does an outfitter or a guide have to go through?

The outfitters have to undergo a background check. We do a criminal background check on everybody, the outfitters, you know, the designated agents, and then the guides.

Mat Erperding with clients on BLM land outside Boise. Photo by Peter Morrill.

Mat Erperding with clients
on BLM land outside Boise.
Photo by Peter Morrill.

And the outfitters, the designated agents operating for an outfitter, have to pass an exam. There's a fairly extensive exam they have to pass. They all have to have first aid training. They have to have training in the backcountry. If they're providing hunting services, they have to be able to skin an elk or skin a deer. Or if they're on the boat, they have to be able to take care of the fish.

But there's an application they have to submit and we review. And, if we have questions, we bring those questions or concerns to the board, and the board makes a decision on what to do.

What's the fastest growing part of the outfitting business?

I wouldn't say it's really anything fast; but it's changing. I would say the dynamics of what we do are changing. The boating and the whitewater is probably becoming a little bit greater focus. Hunting seems to be you know, we had the impact of the wolves. There's been resource issues. But I would say the boating industry, the fishing industry. Whitewater trips are certainly the leading part of what we do. About 60 percent of what we do is whitewater boating and fishing; and then about 40 percent is hunting and that type of activity.

So what are the one or two things that seem to trip people up when they look at outfitting in Idaho?

I think there's confusion between the Outfitters and Guides Board and the Outfitters and Guides Association. The board is the regulatory board, that oversees the outfitting industry. And the Outfitters and Guides Association is, essentially, an industry advocacy group.

I would say the other thing is that the public perceives the outfitters and the guides out there hunting and fishing and doing things for themselves, and that's hardly the case. They're out there providing services to the public.

There's a very significant tourism economic package that goes along with the outfitting industry. We've got communities like Riggins and Challis and several other smaller communities that are significantly involved with the outfitting industry.

But, it's a public service that the industry provides. It's not something that they're doing themselves, and hunting and fishing and benefitting from; they're out there working hard.

I'm curious where most of the outfitters live and work.

The lion's share of the outfitting industry is probably focused around the Salmon River, the Snake River, in Central Idaho. And then we have a smattering of outfitters in Southern Idaho. And the Panhandle. But the vast majority of the industry is either boating on the Salmon or Snake River or they're big game land based outfitters that are 30 miles north or south of the Salmon River.

Our responsibility, from an administrative law standpoint, is we have the ability to take action on a licensed outfitter or guide. But with somebody who is operating without a license, then we work together with the law enforcement community, and we file a criminal complaint and prosecute them criminally.

The Fish and Game Department is a very good partner in helping us deal with the illegal activity in Idaho, as is the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and the local county sheriffs.

White Cloud Outfitters near Castle Peak and Merriam Peak. Photo by Bruce Reichert.

White Cloud Outfitters near Castle Peak and Merriam Peak. Photo by Bruce Reichert.

What would you like to see happen in the outfitting industry?

Well, I would say that one thing that's going on is the industry is moving from the mom and pop to the corporate, and out of state interests are buying up a lot of the industry in Idaho. And, being a native Idahoan, I would like to see the mom and pop part of the industry stick around for a while.

And that's not to say that the corporate people aren't providing a good service and that they're not providing it through people in Idaho; they are. But it's just the dynamics are changing, much like the society we live in. I would say that would probably be the thing that kind of jumps out at me. I don't know if it's a problem; it's just something that's happened in the 15 years I've been here.

I imagine there are controversies between outfitters and the do-it-yourself boaters, for example.

Absolutely. And that's part of the work that we do with the federal agencies. I mentioned the rulemaking that we did on the South Fork of the Snake; it was to make a determination on how much activity would be appropriate. The South Fork is probably one of the most sought after rivers in the Northwest.

And so part of that process that we went through was to make a determination on how much commercial activity we would allow on the South Fork. And it turned out that we pretty much have left it the same. We've clarified it some, but we've eliminated the powerboat opportunity on the South Fork.

But, otherwise, the number of outfitters and the guides that are on the South Fork is about 10 to 12 percent of the total use of the South Fork. We're going to leave that the same. In other words, we did not go through the rulemaking and decide to reduce the number of opportunities on that river, other than just simply eliminating the powerboating.

I don't know if I'd call it a conflict, but there's certainly competition for resources. And as our population grows and the rivers get used, that competition is going to continue, and it's going to become more and more of a concern to this board, as well as the Forest Service, the BLM and the Fish and Game Department.

Sunset in Hemingway-Boulders wilderness. Photo by Tim Tower.

Sunset in Hemingway-Boulders wilderness.
Photo by Tim Tower.