Staring at a bevy of animal pelts, Sen. Gary Schroeder of Moscow tells Unda' the Rotunda about the common ancestry of the Siberian gray squirrel and our common Columbian ground squirrel here in Idaho. Looking at the Siberians, Schroeder remarks: "These are the ones that attacked the dog in Russia. They're a bit feistier than the ones we have here."
Schroeder, the chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, makes his living through a Web site, hideandfur.com, where he sells animal pelts, hides and even brain-tanned skins. Unda' the Rotunda chatted with Schroeder at length about new wildlife bills making their way through the Idaho Legislature.
Two bills coming through the Senate deal specifically with a troublesome city pest: the raccoon. Currently, if you catch one, you are supposed to kill it, not release it back into the wild--or on your neighbor's compost pile.
"Raccoons and skunks are always pests in cities. Problem is, you can't release them in the wild. You get people who say, 'Oh I don't want 'em killed,'" Schroeder said.
Senate Bill 1286 would reclassify raccoons as predators, like skunks and coyotes. Another bill would allow homeowners to capture and release raccoons on private property, with permission, rather than killing the animal as is currently required.
Schroeder even spoke of a legislator who, last year, caught and released a raccoon unlawfully.
As a state with large tracts of wilderness, state parks, national forests and wildlife reserves, Idaho is a premier breeding ground for legislation focused on animals. Sometimes it's silly, like the bill by Rep. Richard Jarvis of Meridian that would make the Idaho Giant Salamander the official state amphibian. The students of Calvary Christian School in Boise pitched the idea to Jarvis.
"Well, it's going well, but it's not going anywhere," Jarvis said. "The Speaker of the House [Rep. Lawerence Denney] has assigned the bill to the Ways and Means committee. Do you know what that means?" It effectively means the salamander is stuck.
Other animal-related bills are deadly serious, however.
The recent passage of Proposition 215 in California forces poultry operators to provide more free space for their factory-farmed chickens. There's growing concern from Idahoans that an exodus of California egg producers will seek to nest in our state.
Sen. Tim Corder of Mountain Home won't say he endorses a flood of egg farms to Idaho, but his "ham and eggs" legislation, as it is being called, would give the Idaho State Department of Agriculture more control over pig and chicken feedlots.
Corder told the Wall Street Journal at the start of the session that he'd seek to stave off Prop 215-like regulations in Idaho, in the hopes of luring California egg farmers to relocate here. Corder is still working on the bill, but says it will contain environmental protections as well.
"Some of those people still don't want to be in the same room," said Corder of the agriculture groups in Idaho. "We can't do all the negotiating in one committee hearing, we gotta have an agreement between these groups before we go in there."
Another controversial bill, House Bill 416, which passed the House Resources and Conservation Committee, allows for wasting of wolf and bear meat, as well as mountain lion, which has always been exempted. It allows hunters to take just the hide and head and leave the meat, and it defines edible portions of game animals, downgrading wasting from a misdemeanor to merely "unlawful."
"The problem with the original statute is it didn't define them, so we clearly defined 'game animal.' It will be clearly defined and won't be left up to interpretation, so when people get cited, those restrictions are clearly defined," said Rep. Fred Wood of Burley.
Another controversy on the minds of lawmakers, though it has not resulted in any legislation yet this year, is the state of bighorn sheep on Idaho's federal lands. Bighorn populations in the Payette National Forest have been dwindling for years, and environmental groups, biologists and the feds agree that domestic sheep should be separated from wild sheep on grazing lands.
The Senate Resources and Conservation Committee heard testimony from the Payette National Forest, the arena for much of the controversy. Both the Hell's Canyon and Salmon River areas are home to bighorn sheep, and the Payette is considering a slew of options for managing sheep in the forest, one of which will become official later this year.
Katie Fite, Western Watersheds Project biodiversity director, spoke about the continued battle between these groups.
"Last year, the Idaho Legislature, before they went home, went crazy ... They imposed greater Fish and Game involvement in bighorn sheep issues, including in ways that would require them to remove bighorn sheep at times, rather than the ranchers being responsible for controlling their sheep herds. It actually aggravated the conflict," Fite said.
The committee remains aggravated.