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.
The public hearings went very long, the emotions were very high, and I think it’s one of the few settings I’d seen more lobbyists outside of the state capitol than ever before. Everybody had a stake in it. Everyone had an interest in it and they were very contentious meetings.

John Watts

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.
It would’ve been a lot easier time for Fish and Game. I don’t know that it would’ve been an easier time for wool growers and cattle growers. The one thing about hunters, God bless 'em, they’re a victim of their own interest, and that is, they love to be alone, and they like to be independent, and they like to sit on the ridges by themselves because that’s how you do your best hunting.

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.
I think the ping-pong game will go on, the ping-pong game of being listed or not listed, of being friend or foe, I think has not played itself out, and the reason it hasn’t played out is, in my own personal opinion, there’s too much, too many opportunities around the animal to make money for some groups.

A closeup of a wolf howling

Can you make the case that Idaho should manage the wolf?
I think the wolf has to be managed by the state in the end. They’re the only entity that can do it for a number of reasons. Number one, they’re the closest to it. Number two, they’ve got the educated and experienced wildlife biologists within the department to do it. Number three, they see on a daily basis the result if they don’t do it. The damage to the wildlife, the damage to the domestic livestock.

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.

Two wolves standing near a tree

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.
I would say that the legislature probably clings more to the agricultural, agrarian value/culture of the state as it relates to public policy and even lifestyle. But at the same time, what I think is a fascinating conundrum is that that same person also clings to the heritage of hunting and fishing.

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?
I think I would go back to the original requirement. The original 15 packs was a very sustainable number and a very reasonable number if, in fact, you want to keep in mind what Idaho is all about. Idaho is all about wildlife diversity, and lots of different kinds of species out there. Wolves can be one of then. Elk is definitely one of them, deer is definitely one of them and there needs to continue to be a place, a strong place for the elk and the deer in my view, over the wolf.

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?
No, I don’t, I think there’s too many. I think it’s gonna take more than a year or two; I think it’s gonna take several years. I can go back to the days when I was involved with wildlife ballot initiative campaigns as a political consultant, Alaska being one of those, and a very controversial measure on the ballot at the time was aerial hunting for wolves.

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?
Over time, I think if you kept after it, over time you could probably reduce the numbers to a more manageable number. But I do believe incidental hunting isn’t going to get you there. I think you’re going to have to introduce some kind of hunting techniques, hunting methods that could create more controversy around this furry animal.

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.
Well, enviros are going to be worried when they hear about possible new methods for hunting and eliminating hundreds of wolves to get them down to a sustainable balance. They probably should’ve thought about that when they wanted them introduced and then they kept fighting to keep them on the list to the point that they’ve got a number that’s a problem. If they’d allowed them to be delisted around 100 or 200, when they originally could have, they’d have been better off.

What about the economics of all this?
I think there’s an economics question in this somewhere that needs to be explored, and you hate to think that wildlife is all about economics because it really isn’t. It’s more about intrinsic values to a human being and lifestyle to a human being, but also lifestyle of the poor critter that’s out there on the hill is being subjected to hunting.

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?
That’s a really good question. Other states fund their wildlife agencies with state general funds. Idaho is one of the few that tries not to do that. Up until this year, I probably would’ve said I don’t think it will ever change, but we’ve seen some things change because of the economic conditions of the state that I never thought I would ever see before. Public education was cut for the very first time in decades, and who would’ve ever guessed that?

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.