John Watts Interview
John Watts is a former Idaho Fish and Game Commissioner. He is also a lobbyist for the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association and has also worked for Pheasants Forever and Trout Unlimited and Friends of the Payette. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2009.
I imagine you remember a few meetings where the wolf was on the agenda.
It was a pretty solid group that I got to serve with, and I think that helped keep the lid on a very emotional, very contentious issue with so many different sides pulling all of the time. Boise had gotten too big at that point. There was too much national attention. Too much money, frankly, to be made off this issue by folks that wanted to see wolves brought back, by folks that didn’t want wolves in Idaho. There was money being made on both sides, because that’s great fodder for fundraising for various non-profit organizations.
If wolves did not eat elk, it probably would have been a much easier time for Fish and Game and for a lot of other people.
But that, at the end of the day, it keeps them unorganized. And the sheep growers and the cattle growers are very organized, and they were the opposition to this. The second level of opposition to this was the Outfitters and Guides because they’re organized, and they’re making a living working to provide the kinds of services that folk may not otherwise have. Knowledge, skill, equipment, access -- they have all that. So they had to be organized to deal with government, too.
To think that you're going to have a harvest and get some kind of noticeable reduction in the wolf population in a year or two isn't going to happen.
But at the end of the day, what’s been realized is that wolves eat more elk than they do sheep and cattle, and you had at one time a hundred thousand elk hunters out there in Idaho. The numbers are down now, but at one time you had a very large constituency for elk, and they started raising a ruckus, too. But somehow wildlife doesn’t enjoy the same status as domestic animals and so they just had to figure it out.
Now, you’ve got elk hunters who are used to hunting in more meadows, more open areas where you could see. Now the elk, to survive, had to learn to go into the forests and live in the forests where they couldn’t get surrounded or chased down by wolves. That was their only means of survival.
Well, then the wolves figured that out and so they started moving in there too, and going in bigger numbers and surrounding them even more where they could at least maybe get one or two of the older ones or younger ones. So now you find elk on rocky side hills that you never used to ever see them before. So they’ve gone from the early days of the settlement of this continent, being a plains animal to a mountain animal to now a rock side mountain goat animal in some respects, and it’s been real tough. You’ve got to balance all of that off somehow. And so the animals are moving, the hunting access is moving and the wolves are growing in numbers.
And you have the courts getting into the picture.
Can you make the case that Idaho should manage the wolf?
And so the state has to be the one that manages because they see all these things and they have the resources. And ultimately, I think in order to protect the wolf to the level that some people want it protected, again, it’s got to be the state.
I think anytime you have a conflict between wildlife and humans, the wildlife is gonna to lose. It’s just the way it is, and so the state has to manage it because the state gets that. And the state can work with the cities in terms of planning and zoning, in terms of where we build and where we don’t build. And they can try to manage the wildlife because that is the call of the state, the requirement of the state, the constitutional duty of the state to manage the wildlife within the statutes of the state. And the charge to the commission is manage all wildlife for all people.
So now we’ve got to figure out how you match science with special interests with the needs of the wildlife and that’s a tricky business. And it’s gonna get trickier and trickier as we go on, and that takes you back to the courts, that brings you into hunting, and I think the state will have to hunt them to manage them. That’s the only means to manage them.
The reason we hunt black bear isn’t because people love to eat black bear meat per se, or you need the hide or fur anymore. It’s because if you get too many of them, they create problems for themselves. And wolves are going to get to that point, and wolves are nearing that point now, and so the state has to be the one that manages them.
There are reasonable people out there who question whether the Fish and Game Commission can do the job of managing wolves.
It's easy to point at a legislator or a Fish and Game Commissioner just because it's inherently political; and they're both going to be, just by the nature of those positions, subject to a lot of competing and special interests.
The Fish and Game Commission and the legislature are the ones that get a lot of the heat because they’re the ones that, number one, are most visible to the general public. Secondly, at least in the case of the legislators, they’re elected by the people.
But the Fish and Game Commission has its own interesting little nuance of opportunity for criticism because they’re appointed by the governor and sustained and confirmed if you will, by the Senate. So it’s very political. It’s political by nature. You can say, well, I’m appointing this person because they’re bringing science to the table and they’re right and just and… Well, they may be, but they know somebody or they’ve been somewhere or they wouldn’t be where they’re at. And I’m a case in point; you can use me as a case in point.
I’m very happy to have been a Fish and Game Commissioner, and I’d like to think that during my time I did some things that helped in some way, but the reality of how I got there is, number one, make no mistake, I had a very strong interest in hunting and fishing in the state of Idaho and had been doing it all my life and continue to do it. But, number two, I had married that interest with politics that I have a very deep interest in.
I’m a professional lobbyist, I was at the time, and I’m also very involved in political campaigns. And so going to lots of fundraisers, spending time with elected officials, spending time with groups that elect these officials, including conservation groups and environmental groups, they have their political agendas too. It’s going to be political.
So it’s easy to point at a legislator or a Fish and Game Commissioner just because it’s inherently political, and they’re both going to be, just by the nature of those positions, subject to a lot of competing and special interests.
And so it’s real easy to point fingers and lay the blame because they are truly trying to balance off lots of interests; and some personalities are just better at it than others. Sometimes it’s hard for even good personalities to find the balance point.
And the legislature seems to have an agrarian bent to it in Idaho.
There is a balance point, and we just need to pursue it, and people need to accept that, and let everybody pursue it.
But I think the legislature does tend to cling to hunting elk forever and clinging to the agricultural interests and the livestock interest. Makes them hate the wolf more than perhaps someone down in a coffee shop, down in downtown Boise, as a prime example. I expect not many of them have seen a wolf or heard a wolf, but they love those cute little puppy pictures, and they want those wolves out there by golly, no matter what, just in the outside event that they manage to make it into the mountains and they manage to be in the right spot, and they manage to hear one or see one.
But that’s just an urban area. I don’t think you could go to Council and draw that conclusion. I don’t think you could go out to Parma and draw that conclusion. I don’t think you could go down to Grand View and draw that conclusion. It just depends on what your frame of reference is, and where you are from.
What would you like to see happen with the whole wolf issue?
Frankly, there were wolves in Idaho before they were reintroduced. And I think you’ll find biologists that’ll verify that fact. And I have a very good friend who’s a wolf lover to the max. And she was very disappointed the day they reintroduced wolves, because she says now there’s going to be controversy. Before they were just a few of them out there. She knew about them, and she had heard them and she smiled about that.
Now this has been nothing but angst and teeth gnashing. And will be for years to come. And so I think in a good world, you’d have your 15 packs that we originally had to have. I just think there’s a place for wolves in Idaho, I think in a perfect world, you’ve got to have a balance for everything. And the wolves have a place; they’ll always have a place. Deer and elk definitely have a place and deer and elk should probably have a greater place, because there’s more of them and they’re more important to many facets of this state than just the wolf. But if you went back to the original 15 packs and tried to manage them around there to a few hundred animals, they’d have a place, they’d coexist. The deer and the elk would certainly have a stronger place and could coexist, and I think at the end, that’s what it’s got to be. You’ve got to have a policy that has a place for all wildlife, because it’s here and it’s not going away. They’re not going away.
But they don’t need to be so out of balance as they are now that they are controversy, they are a problem, they are where they don’t belong, and they’re doing things they shouldn’t be doing until you can reduce those numbers and get them back in a manageable population, which hunting could do. Certainly, the policy we’re on would get us in that direction. But there is a balance point, and we just need to pursue it, and people need to accept that, and let everybody pursue it.
Do you think a year or two of hunting wolves will solve many of these problems?
The reason they were doing that is because that was the most effective way to find them and to eliminate them down to numbers that they could manage or out of areas that they didn’t even want ‘em because they were getting too many of them, too close to some of those giant caribou herds there.
You go back to the bear initiative days in Idaho, part of the rational for awhile, the preeminent bear biologist at the time said he could support using bait and hounds is because that was one of the most effective ways in which to manage the population.
So, to manage wolf populations just in a year or two of just casual hunting isn’t going to do it. Wolves are smarter than that. They only come out at night and high tech equipment for hunting is illegal, like infrared scopes for instance. So you’ll have to do it during the day, and it’s going to be an incidental take at best, I think, when you do that. And so to think that you’re going to have a harvest and get some kind of noticeable reduction in the wolf population in a year or two isn’t going to happen.
But over time?
Incidental hunting is not gonna get you there. Not at all, because these wolves aren’t coming out in the daytime, and these wolves can’t be hunted at night very effectively and you can’t trap ‘em right now, so you may have to go to trapping which is going to create problems. You’re not going to use hounds because unfortunately, people lose their hounds bear hunting now. You can’t go there. If you get so many you will see them on a hillside while you’re hunting deer or elk in the fall, incidental take would come into play, but only to the point that they’ve pushed each other out of the safe harbors, out of the safe areas. And so they’re the young ones or the old ones or the dumb ones that are going to be on the hillside, and they’re going to be taken. You’re gonna have a good hard core of very smart wolves that aren’t coming out until it’s nighttime and they know it’s safe, and incidental hunting won’t take a dent in that over four or five or six years; you’ve got to stay after it for a long time and probably change some hunting methods.
Some people aren’t going to want to hear that.
What about the economics of all this?
But if you accept the reality of the role of humans and the role of animals, animals have been hunted forever. Human is the species that will continue to do that. And for all the vegan friends out there, guess what, they plant a seed and grow a carrot and pluck it right out of the ground, too. So, you know, everything is going to die at a human touch if, in fact, that’s the case that needs to occur or if, in fact, it’s a benefit, or if, in fact, there’s too much of something that it becomes a problem.
Somebody’s making a living off of something associated with hunting or fishing probably, and that’s a sporting goods store. That might be an outfitter, that might be a hotel, that might be a rental car agency, that might be any number of those kinds of businesses that’s attached to the elk hunting and the deer hunting and that’s a very viable, strong economic sector of this state that I don’t think you can ignore.
You don’t have to make it preeminent over wolf existence, but I don’t think you can just neglect it, either, and I feel like the past several years, it’s just been neglected in the call for preservation, the call for ‘don’t touch a wolf ever for any reason.’ I think it’s again, off balance, too far to one side and we’re threatening some people’s livelihoods and some people’s lifestyles as a result of that to satisfy other lifestyles that aren’t attached to it really in any regard except that they know they’re out there, and they like the feeling that’s created by knowing they’re out there, as opposed to really doing something with them out there.
Do you think that Fish and Game should be funded by more than just sportsmen’s dollars?
So I think the time may come, and wolves will be a stimulator of that mindset to start funding wildlife management with general funds. But I don’t think that that’s in the foreseeable future.