BLM, forest service offering Christmas tree cutting permits

For those who like to tromp around in the outdoors to find their Christmas tree, public land managers have a deal for you.

Permits to cut Christmas trees on national forest or Bureau of Land Management land in East Idaho will cost $15. Only one tree is allowed per family.

Permits on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest can be obtained at ranger district offices or at several vendors in East Idaho. They are available now.

In Pocatello, you can get a permit at the Westside Ranger District at 4350 S. Cliffs Drive or at C-A-L Ranch, 4115 Yellowstone Ave. A full list of vendors can be found at

“We sell between 8,000 and 9,000 Christmas tree tags per year,” said Sarah Wheeler, a spokesman for the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. “Last year we sold 8,791.”

Households that purchase a Christmas tree permit are encouraged to harvest their trees as soon as possible due to weather conditions, Wheeler said in a news release. “Mountain snowstorms and subsequent road conditions can limit access to cutting areas.”

Both the BLM and Forest Service remind tree cutters that all motorized travel restrictions are still in effect and will be enforced. Both groups offer helpful maps on where to go and where not to go to find a Christmas tree.

“Montpelier and Palisades Ranger Districts are the most popular areas for Christmas tree cutting,” Wheeler said.

“Be safe and prepared,” the BLM advises in its tree permit information. “Check road and weather conditions before heading out. Make sure you have everything you need for an outdoor venture including warm clothes, food, water and safety equipment. Let someone know where you’ll be going and when you plan to return. If you get stranded, call for help, and stay with your group and vehicle until help arrives.”

The Caribou-Targhee National Forest is offering one free Christmas tree cutting permit to fourth-graders who have an Every Kid Outdoors pass. The permits must be picked up by fourth-graders at Forest Service offices and are not available from vendors.

“The fourth-grader must be present at the time the permit is issued and must be picked up prior to cutting your tree,” the forest service said.

Wheeler said, last year, 54 fourth-graders took advantage of the Every Kid Outdoors pass to get a free Christmas tree cutting permit. She said the Caribou-Targhee office typically issued about 1,000 Every Kid Outdoors passes.

Every Kid Outdoors passes can be found at With the pass, fourth-graders and their families can have free entry to more than 2,000 federally managed lands and waters for an entire year starting Sept. 1.

F&G commission to meet Nov. 13-14 in Pocatello

POCATELLO — The Idaho Fish and Game Commission will meet in Pocatello on Nov. 13 and 14, with the public hearing starting at 7 p.m. Nov. 13 in the Southeast Regional Office at 1345 Barton Road. People can address the commission on any matters related to Fish and Game at that time.

The meeting will continue at 8 a.m. Nov. 14 at the same location. Public comments will not be taken during this portion of the meeting.

Commissioners are scheduled to consider ratification of pending rules, a proposal to extend the fishery restrictions for steelhead, approval of Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation bonding for construction of a new headquarters office building in Boise, a discount for resident senior combination licenses for lifetime certificate holders, and more.

Other agenda topics include a review of the commission’s technical comment policy, an update on revision of the FY 21 budget, discussion of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2019, updates on the moose plan and other agenda items. See the full agenda.

Individuals with disabilities may request meeting accommodations by contacting the Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director’s Office at 208-334-5159 or through the Idaho Relay Service at 1-800-368-6185 (TDD).

The future of hunting

In 1982, there were 17 million hunters in the United States, according to records of hunting license purchases. Between 2000 and 2011, we lost 2.2 million hunters. In 2016, only 11.5 million people hunted. Obviously the steady decline of hunters over the years has fish and game departments, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concerned because the bulk of their revenue comes from taxes hunters pay for licences, buying firearms, bows, arrows and ammunition.

There are many factors that influence the decline of hunting in the United States. The baby boomers who make up 30 percent of current hunters are aging out of hunting. Within 10 years, the majority of baby boomers will have stopped hunting altogether. So the generation that was born between approximately 1945 and 1960 are now dying, have lost interest in hunting, don’t see as well as they used to, are unable to meet the physical requirements of hunting, or just feel too old to climb mountains that seem to get steeper each year. I’m a baby boomer having been born at the end of World War II, and I have seen a few of my former hunting friends stop hunting.

It is harder for those of us who are now in our 70s to stay in shape for hunting each year, but several of us are still hunting pretty much the same as we always have, albeit we may have slowed down a little. But in 10 years, who knows how many of us will still be hunting since we will be crowding 80 years or more?

Private land where hunting or crossing to get to public lands is prohibited is another concern that has frustrated hunters the past few years. In some cases, the only viable access to public land is through private land where access is prohibited. Fish and game departments are doing what they can to open up private land with the Access Yes! program, but not all private land owners are willing to participate.

I often hear frustration that the best areas for hunting are available only through the draw, where a hunter has to choose a particular area, draw to hunt the area and wait a couple of months to hear if his or her name was drawn to hunt in that area. Some have complained that they draw for a particular area year after year and never have their name drawn. Personally, while I would like the opportunity to hunt in a draw area, I believe there is good hunting in other areas of public land if you take the time to scout the area and learn where to find game once hunting season opens.

As hunters, we also have a recruitment problem. We aren’t recruiting new hunters and introducing them to hunting in such a way as to teach them to hunt and process their meat, or we are recruiting the wrong crowd who are approximately the same generation we are and will age out of hunting at about the same time as we do. We should be recruiting our children and their generation by taking them hunting and teaching them what our parents taught us about hunting

A 2016 USFWS census concluded that only Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky, had increased their hunting population by 200,000 hunters or more, based on hunting licenses sold. Some states such as Idaho were able to maintain about the same number of hunters, but the majority of states reported significant losses of hunting license sales. The overall decrease in licenses sold directly impacts management of game animals and means that funds for increasing wildlife habitat and purchasing additional public lands may not be available if the trend continues.

Although we are experiencing a decline in hunting licenses sold, firearm sales and archery sales are up nation wide. Not all people who buy firearms and archery equipment are hunters, and firearm and archery sales are also taxed, and those taxes are dispersed to fish and game departments around the country.

I think that hunting will always be an important part of game management, but I also think we will be seeing some changes in hunting and hunters in the next few years. I believe that the 23- to 45-year-old crowd will save our hunting heritage. However, they will be hunting primarily for meat instead of trophies. I also think that in the future, crossbows will be used more as additional states begin to allow crossbows for big game hunting. I also see ballistic compensating rifles such as the Remington 2020,which practically aims the rifle for you, being used by more hunters. Smartphone apps that tell you where to hunt are now being researched and developed and will be used by more hunters and the art of scouting for big game will only be done by a few purists. I believe suppressors will be used on more rifles as regulations by both the state and federal government are relaxed. More women will be getting into hunting, which is a good thing. Clothing for female hunters has been a priority of the clothing industry for several years and companies such as Weatherby are already building rifles like the Camilla to suit female hunters’ frames more comfortably. Lighter, warmer hunting clothes such as Silver Shield will be developed for hunters. I also see Chronic Wasting Disease in big game getting worse, so make sure to stop at the fish and game checking stations on your way home from hunting to check for the disease before processing and eating the meat.

Smokey Merkley was raised in Idaho and has been hunting since he was 10 years old. He can be contacted at

Two elk killed and processed before being dumped in S.E. Idaho

Idaho Fish and Game officials are mystified why two cow elk were properly partly processed after being killed but then dumped about one mile north of Georgetown in Southeast Idaho.

A sportsman in the area recently discovered and reported the wasted meat to Fish and Game on Oct. 28.

Senior Conservation Officer Raliegh Scott of Fish and Game said the situation is hard to understand.

“The puzzling thing about this case is that the elk were properly taken care of prior to being dumped,” he said. “Each elk was skinned, cut into quarters, and appeared to be, at one time, properly tagged.”

Scott said he discovered fluorescent zip ties still attached to the hindquarters of both elk. That’s a possible indication that big game tags were formerly attached to both animals prior to being discarded.

“This area is known for sportsmen who take great pride in caring for meat so to see waste at this level is troubling,” he said.

Fish and Game is asking anyone with information about these two elk, or vehicles or people seen in the area from Oct. 25 through Oct. 27, to call or text Scott at 207-270-9923.

Those with information can also contact the Citizens Against Poaching hotline at 1-800-632-5999 or go to and fill out an online report.

People who provide information may remain anonymous. And those with information leading to an arrest are eligible for rewards, according to Fish and Game.

Pit toilets and solitude: Survey shows what modern Yellowstone backpackers want

Yellowstone National Park backpackers want a few more amenities compared to their counterparts surveyed 17 years ago, but in other respects they remain much the same.

The information comes from a recently published survey in the journal “Yellowstone Science.” Lead author Ray Darville, a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, published the results to give park managers greater insight into who is using Yellowstone’s backcountry and what they think.

On the topic of improvements, like bridges or pit toilets, more of the modern travelers indicated an interest in such amenities indicating a wish to have a “slightly less ‘wild’ experience,” Darville wrote. Yet they also valued solitude and tranquility.


The study mimicked a 1999 survey led by Tim Oosterhous, but also branched off to collect information about how well informed backcountry users were. In a list of 10 questions the backpackers scored an average grade of C, indicating a need for better education of the travelers, Darville wrote. All backcountry campers are required to watch an informational video.

Although most backpackers responded correctly to a question about whether they should run when encountering a bear (no, you should not run), only about one-third correctly answered that a bison can run three times faster than a human.

“Given the relatively greater risk to backpackers compared to other park visitors, we believe backcountry users should have appropriate knowledge,” Darville wrote.


Like woodsy travelers of 1999, the 2016 contingent was similar in many ways. The majority were well educated, young, white, non-Hispanic males traveling in groups of about three people.

Unlike their predecessors, more of the 2016 backpacking survey respondents were female, and they tended to stay in the woods a bit longer — 2.62 nights compared to 2.29.

In addition, “In Oosterhous’ study, 83 percent traveled on foot for at least part of their trip, but in our study 94 percent traveled on foot,” Darville wrote.

Interest in Yellowstone’s backcountry has grown as trips to the park have also climbed. According to Darville’s research, “Since 1979, over 1.5 million backpackers have registered in the backcountry offices for an overnight trip, and since 1993, the number of registered backpackers has varied between 35,000 and 45,000 annually. In 2016, almost 45,000 backcountry campers (backpackers) were in the park with about 34,000 in the park during June, July, and August alone (77 percent of all backcountry backpackers for the year).”

Despite the growth in backcountry use, the majority of backpackers said they did not feel crowded, even though the majority — 77 percent — visited in the busiest months of June, July, and August.

Vast terrain

All of those trail-pounders are spread out along about 1,000 miles of trails that lead to roughly 300 campsites. Those campsites now must be paid for with a $3 fee per person per night, a fee not in place back in 1999. But most backpackers said they didn’t mind parting with the dollars since they were going to things like trail and campsite maintenance.

Instead, about one-third of the respondents saved their wrath for commercially guided groups, saying such outfits diminished the backcountry experience.

Although backcountry camping remains popular in Yellowstone, as of August the number of campers had dropped almost 8 percent compared to 2018 — down to 31,200 compared to 33,800 a year ago. Information from September had not yet been entered in the park database. Those numbers seem to be on a steady, although slight, decline since 2016.

Given all of the uncertainties and travails that can go into a backcountry trip — everything from bears to blisters, bugs to bad weather and the monotony of dehydrated meals — Darville found most Yellowstone backpackers are pretty happy with their outings.

“Our study suggests Yellowstone’s backpackers, while a small percentage compared to the total number of annual visitors, are generally satisfied with their backcountry experience.”

Hunting ethics

I have always felt fortunate to have grown up in the Rocky Mountain North West. I was taught to hunt at an early age by my father, whom I would describe as a reluctant hunter, and two of his brothers, who were enthusiastic hunters and could hardly wait for hunting season each year.

Grandpa Merkley raised his sons to be skilled and ethical hunters, and they in turn handed down his example and lessons to his sons who in turn handed down the same example and lessons to my generation on many hunting trips and camp fire chats all over the state of Idaho.

My generation has now, for the most part, handed down the same example and lessons to their own children who now seem to think that plenty of cookies, soda pop and an iPod, are all they need in their day packs.

Jim Posewitz’s book “Beyond Fair Chase” defines an ethical hunter as “a person who knows and respects the animals hunted, follows the law and behaves in a way that will satisfy what society expects of him or her as a hunter.”

I believe that a responsible hunter will always use a weapon that is powerful enough to cleanly kill the animal being hunted without being so powerful that the hunter can’t shoot accurately because of anticipation of a stout recoil. I often hunt deer or elk with a .300 Weatherby Magnum because I am not sure at what range I will have to shoot and the .300 Weatherby is capable of reaching out with sufficient energy to cleanly kill deer or elk at several hundred yards. I do, however, normally limit myself to 600 yards based on my eyesight, skill with my rifle and the caliber’s ability to strike the target at that distance with enough energy to make a clean kill. I have been using a .300 Weatherby for a lot of years and am completely comfortable shooting it without worrying about the recoil and can do so without flinching at the shot. Many of the people I have hunted with over the years prefer .30-06s, 7mm Magnums and .300 Winchester Magnums for most of the same reasons. I even opt for a .30-06 if the area isn’t going to be very open in most places.

Along with using a rifle with sufficient power, I believe an ethical hunter will try to get within a reasonable range of the animal being hunted to make sure the shot is well paced. Taking shots at ranges outside of a hunter’s ability to consistently hit the vital zone usually means a missed or, even worse, badly placed shot that doesn’t kill the animal but cripples it. When you pull the trigger or release an arrow, you should be almost certain that you will hit and kill the animal. None of us are perfect and we all make poor shots at times, but getting as close as possible decreases the chance of a badly placed shot.

Respect for property owners and their wishes is one of the most important traits of an ethical hunter. Don’t trespass on private property, Get permission to hunt on or cross private property. If the property owner says no, don’t argue; find somewhere else to hunt. Another aspect of respecting others is remembering that not everyone wants to see a dead deer, so don’t put it on display for everyone to see as you drive home or to the processor’s place of business.

Practice principles of fair chase where the deer or elk has an advantage, but you just might get the opportunity if you are quiet and smart to get your shot. I also don’t believe canned hunts on fenced properties are ethical. If a particular elk farm guarantees you will get your deer or elk, that isn’t fair chase. If you think differently, then we disagree.

An ethical hunter uses all or as much of the animal as possible. If you hunt just for the experience to get out and try to outsmart a buck that has survived for several years, but you don’t want the meat, donate it to Idaho Hunter’s Feeding the Hungry. They have a website that will tell you how to donate the meat.

I believe that most hunters have developed their own ideas about ethical hunting and have a sense of right and wrong, but sometimes the temptation to do something that is not in keeping with ethical practices is pretty strong. We just have to be stronger because the future of hunting depends on the ethical behavior and good examples we as hunters set and exercise.

Smokey Merkley was raised in Idaho and has been hunting since he was 10 years old. He can be contacted at

Montana hunter reports shooting grizzly bear in self-defense

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — State wildlife officials are investigating after a hunter reported shooting a grizzly bear in self-defense in southwestern Montana.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said the shooting happened Saturday in the Eureka Basin south Gravelly Mountains. Four hunters were attacked by grizzly bears during a 10-day period in September in the Gravelly Mountains, including one in the Eureka Basin area.

State and federal wildlife managers said Monday they are also investigating two other human-caused grizzly bear deaths that happened in the last week in the West Yellowstone area. Officials haven’t released any further information about those deaths.

Deer left to waste in separate incidents in East Idaho

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is investigating the waste of two mule deer bucks dumped south of Idaho Falls.

They were discovered recently south of Sand Creek Golf Course on Henry Creek Road.

“We are asking for your help,” conservation officer Rob Howe said in a news release. “Anyone with knowledge of these two deer is asked to come forward and help us understand what circumstances lead to these deer being left.”

Fish and Game is also seeking information regarding two separate incidents of the waste of big game in Caribou County.

Sometime between Oct. 10 and Oct. 12, a 3 X 3 mule deer buck was shot with a rifle and left to waste south of Blackfoot Reservoir in Unit 72. A member of the public discovered the deer about 100 yards off of China Cap Road.

A member of the public also reported a 2-point mule deer buck left to waste in Unit 74 about 60 yards off of Mountain View Road, six miles west of Grace. The deer was shot with a rifle sometime between Oct. 10 and Oct. 13.

Fish and Game asks anyone who has information related to any of these incidents to contact Senior Conservation Officer Joshua Leal at 208-390-1624 or the Citizens Against Poaching hotline at 1-800-632-5999. Callers may remain anonymous and those with information leading to an arrest are eligible for rewards.

How much meat can you get from deer?

Deer meat, commonly referred to as venison, is a delicacy loved by people all over the world with my wife as possibly the only exception. There are so many different ways one can prepare venison for consumption, making it one of the most in-demand categories in the food industry. Experienced hunters can process deer meat where they dropped it or take it to a butcher for processing.

How much meat you can get from a deer depends on several factors from the technique and skill of the butcher, to the area of bullet impact. In case you did not take a clear shot and the bullet hit the fleshy area of the body, the quantity of venison you can get from the carcass may differ. To take the perfect shot, you need to avoid creating any noise that can tip off the deer to your presence. For better spotting and aiming, you can use binoculars and a quality telescopic sight.

The question of how much meat you can expect to get from your deer is a major concern of most hunters. Studies show that on the average you can probably expect 40 to 50 percent of the total weight of the carcass from an experienced butcher.

Some basic terminology you should understand are:

  • Live weight: This is the total weight of the deer prior to any processing.
  • Field-dressed weight: Total weight of the deer without any innards, which is 78 percent of live weight.
  • Hanging weight: Field-dressed deer stripped of its skin, head and the hooves, amounting to 75 percent of field-dressed weight.

You can use the size and weight of the deer to guess the quantity of meat you will get. The age of the deer is a mild factor that can affect the total amount of meat that can be processed.

The experience of the hunter is a major factor that determines quantity of venison. A bullet missing the sweet spots of head, neck or heart can result in a 10-pound loss of deer meat. You could also lose about 5 pounds in the butcher shop.

A poor shot can ruin fleshy regions that normally would have yielded more meat. A shot into the hind leg could result in the loss of 6 pounds of meat.

Dressing a deer involves removing inedible parts before butchering. Inedible parts are the innards, the head and part of the legs, which you have to remove in the process. Skinning is an intricate process, and you will need skill to avoid cutting into meat.

Using a sharp knife, make a cut completely encircling the anus and cut much like coring an apple. Pull the rectum outside the body and tie off with a small cord to prevent feces from contaminating the meat during the rest of the field dressing.

Another factor that can lead to meat loss is a ruptured gall bladder and bile spillage into the meat. The last thing you want to experience is bile-infused meat. It tastes awful, and I suspect that is why my wife doesn’t like, nor will she eat, venison.

Deer hunting methods and the different steps of butchering determine the net quantity of venison. A hunter should have the proper gear and weapons that help quietly get close to deer and shoot at the desired spot accurately.

Butchering requires experience and skill to avoid mistakes that result in the loss of edible meat. Attention to detail and patience will ensure quality and quantity of venison.

Smokey Merkley was raised in Idaho and has been hunting since he was 10 years old. He can be contacted at

Monster sturgeons dropped into local river

Like hoisting an oversized stretcher, four strong men heaved the poles out of the giant bathtub sitting in a pickup bed, water poured from the stretcher sides, and huge fins thrashed.

They were carrying a monster, more than 7-feet long. The truck was backed up at the boat launch just below John’s Hole Bridge in Idaho Falls on a recent afternoon.

“This is where we need the weightlifters,” said Dan Anta, assistant manager at the Hagerman fish hatchery.

The men carried the creature down the boat ramp to the water.

“What is it?” asked a small boy, who was watching the proceedings.

“It’s a dinosaur,” teased James Brower, regional communications manager for Idaho Department of Fish and Game. He paused while the men released the behemoth into the water, then he told the truth: “It’s a sturgeon.”

“Can I touch him?” Conor Kennedy, 6, asked.

“Yes, but hurry,” said his father, Patrick Kennedy, a Fish and Game regional fisheries biologist who was standing in shin-deep water, steadying the fish. Mid-torso the fish was as thick as a watermelon. A giddy Conor stepped into the water and petted the fish’s head like it was a puppy.

After a few minutes the sturgeon slowly patrolled the water about the boat dock and then disappeared into the depths of the Snake River. The process was repeated again with a second 7-foot-long sturgeon. This fish circled about in the boat launch area for a minute, then vanished into the dark river water.

The two fish were 25 years old and were removed from the observation pond at Fish and Game’s Hagerman Hatchery northwest of Twin Falls.

“They lived their entire life in their show pond that showcases some big fish,” Kennedy said. “They had fairly high densities and they were looking to reduce their densities in their observation tank.”

On Tuesday, Fish and Game planted eight, 4-foot sturgeon below Gem Lake on the Snake River. At that age, the sturgeon were only a few years old. While 4-foot-long fish may sound big, for sturgeon they’re just youngsters. Kennedy said sturgeon don’t reach adulthood until about age 20 and can live in excess of 100 years old.

Sturgeon are the largest freshwater fish in North America. Before the era of dams on the Snake, Salmon and Columbia rivers, sturgeon grew to 1,500 pounds feasting on abundant runs of salmon, steelhead, lamprey and mussels. Dams now often isolate sturgeon populations and have reduced some of their food sources.

The fish’s long life and slow maturity is one reason why they are catch-and-release only — never removing them from the water — throughout the state. Barbless hooks with a sliding sinker are also required. For tips and rules on Idaho sturgeon fishing, go to

Fish and Game started planting white sturgeon in the Snake River at Idaho Falls in 2007. The river has been stocked the past few springs with about 200 little guys in the 2-foot range. The fish are stocked in five locations — the upper being at the Idaho Falls Dog Park and the lower being below Gem Lake.

Sturgeon tend to be bottom feeders. Brower said some anglers in Idaho Falls are targeting the sturgeon and have been catching them “on a regular basis.”

“Most of them are in the 2- to 3-foot range, they’re not huge, but that’s still a big fish,” Brower said.