A controversial bill designed to limit the ability of the Idaho Fish & Game Department to regulate ATV hunting in backcountry areas has narrowly passed the state’s senate resource committee. If signed into law, state wildlife officials warn they’ll lose one of their key management tools.

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The Senate Resources Committee approved the bill on a 5-4 vote, with two Republicans joining committee Democrats in casting no votes. The slim margin of victory in committee, coupled with objections lodged by the state’s top fish and game official, could hamper the bill’s chances of clearing the full Senate. The measure, approved in the House earlier this month, takes aim at Fish and Game rules that require ATV-mounted hunters in a third of Idaho’s hunting units to avoid off-road vehicle trails. Agency officials claim regulating where hunters using ATVs can travel is a crucial tool for managing big game populations. A similar measure was tabled last year so an interim committee could hammer out a compromise.

_But opponents of the agency’s authority over trails still have a laundry list of complaints, including whether the agency has the legal authority to regulate travel on public lands. Sen. Jeff Tippets, R-Montpelier, one of the bill’s supporters Wednesday, claimed restricting ATV travel essentially discriminates against hunters who can’t physically traverse some trails without aid of a vehicle. He also said many find the rule and its enforcement confusing and arbitrary.

“How do you know when someone is traveling with a gun whether they’re hunting or not?” asked Tippets, noting that many hunters use ATVs to travel to a hunting campsite but not to hunt from. “It’s very subjective.” Virgil Moore, director of Fish and Game, said if the agency is barred from regulating ATV hunters, sportsmen could expect the agency to resort to other game management strategies, including shorter or more controlled hunting seasons.”Without the motorized hunting rule, I suspect we would see a controlled hunt,” Moore said. “We know our hunters prefer to keep the mix we’ve got of controlled hunts and general hunts.”_

Thoughts? Reaction? Should the Idaho Fish and Game Department have the authority to manage ATV traffic in backcountry big-game hunting areas, or should we be able to drive an ATV wherever and whenever we want?