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Backcountry Key to Idaho Hunting

Without roadless areas, hunters face reduced hunts

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When it comes to big-game hunting, Idaho is about as good as it gets. From the Great Basin to the Panhandle in places like the Bannock, White Cloud and Selkirk ranges, the Gem State's expansive landscapes offer opportunities for backcountry experiences found nowhere else on earth.

This fall, deer and elk hunters are already enjoying another world-class Idaho hunting season. However, as sportsmen head into the field, state and federal officials are at work on a plan that may impact the future of hunting on some of Idaho's finest big-game habitat. Their actions are likely to determine the long-term management of 9.3 million acres of Idaho's roadless backcountry.

Officially known as "inventoried roadless areas" by the U.S. Forest Service, backcountry areas without roads provide critical habitat for big-game animals. Roads are important for providing access for hunters and other recreationists, but studies show that too many roads cause an increase in elk and mule deer vulnerability, resulting in an imbalance in male-to-female ratios and a reduction in mature bucks and bulls. Increased vulnerability usually results in shorter seasons and fewer available tags. Between 1969 and 1989, the elk season in the Targhee National Forest was reduced from 44 days to five largely due to increased road construction and reduction in big-game hiding cover. While the season has since been lengthened, it might never be as long as it once was—largely because secure big-game habitat has been lost.

Even though some parts of the state have shorter seasons, Idaho still is known for legendary bucks, fine bulls and outstanding backcountry hunting. However, under the current rulemaking process, more than 500,000 acres of the nation's best elk and mule deer habitat are in trouble. A big chunk of remaining roadless backcountry in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest is slated to lose its conservation protections under the current planning process. These treasured southeastern Idaho backcountry areas proposed for loosened management restrictions include the Italian Peaks, Southern Lemhi Range, Oxford Mountain and Bonneville Peak—all excellent hunting destinations.

Other backcountry roadless areas around the state might also lose their current conservation guidelines. New roads in the Napoleon Ridge roadless area outside of Salmon could cause problems for important steelhead spawning habitat while reducing security cover for elk. Kootenai Peak near Bonners Ferry also is proposed for lessened conservation guidelines, posing long-term risks for some of northern Idaho's best sporting opportunities and finest fish and wildlife habitat. Additional areas, including North Fork of Slate Creek south of Grangeville and Cache Peak south of Burley could face the same fate and be at risk of elevated levels of big-game vulnerability, increased stream sedimentation and negative impacts to hunting and fishing.

Altering the current management of Idaho's roadless backcountry just doesn't make sense. More than 34,000 miles of roads in Idaho provide plenty of access while maintaining high-quality areas for folks to hunt, fish and camp with their families. New roads will only reduce the appeal of the very places Idahoans are trying to access. With a $660 million maintenance backlog on existing Forest Service roads, it is shortsighted to build new roads on national forest land when the Forest Service can't afford the upkeep on the ones it already has.

Idaho is one of the last places in the nation where out-of-state hunters still can purchase mule deer tags over the counter. Sportsmen come from all over the country to experience the kind of once-in-a-lifetime hunting and fishing that Idaho's backcountry offers, spending more than $566 million in the state every year. Fuel stations, hotels and grocery stores, sporting good stores, guides, outfitters and airlines all benefit. Idaho's economy could take a hit if new roads in the backcountry impacted big game, thereby forcing the Idaho Fish and Game to curtail hunter opportunities through fewer available tags, shorter seasons or both. I doubt sportsmen would appreciate a reduction in hunting opportunity very much, either.

Idaho has a lot of things worth keeping; the backcountry is one of them. Our government must protect Idaho's hunting opportunities by keeping roadless areas in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest and throughout the state just the way they are—free of new roads and accessible by trails. Our children and grandchildren deserve to experience the same rugged landscapes and world-class outdoor experiences enjoyed by prior generations.

Joel Webster is a field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.