When R.G. Cole, Homer Martin and Dan McGrath delivered the petitions with 24,000 signatures to the secretary of state in July, 1938, they were not at all certain of the outcome in the November 8 election of that year.
Their work was the culmination of nearly three decades of effort.
In 1911, Game Warden Frank M. Kendall had recommended "placing the fish and game department of Idaho on a scientific basis and in order to do so we must have men who have made this a study and are familiar with the needs and requirement of this line of work, regardless of political affiliations, and to this end I would recommend … we place the men who are directly in the fish and game department under a civil service ruling and retain them as long as they do good work."
Meanwhile hunters and anglers were getting organized. By 1912, the Idaho Sportsmen's Association counted 10,000 members. They too wanted to reform the way the state's game was managed.
In 1913 the association presented the first formal proposal for game management reform. The legislation calling for a nonpartisan fish and game commission passed in the House but died in the Senate.
In 1914, Idaho Sportsmen's Association president B.F. Walton again proposed reform legislation to remove game management from partisan politics and to prevent license revenue from being diverted to other uses.
And in his 1914 report, Game Warden J.B. Gowen recommended placing employees on a civil service basis. He said "when we get men who are competent, who understand the business, they should be retained regardless of politics."
In 1915, the association proposed legislation that called for three commissioners who would serve staggered six-year terms and with the authority to appoint a game warden and regional deputies. It passed the House 32 to 24 and 27 to 5 in the Senate. The victory celebration was short lived; it was vetoed by Gov. Moses Alexander.
The idea lay dormant for the next 18 years.
By 1925 most large communities in Idaho had a sportsmen's club that promoted ethical behavior and wildlife conservation. In 1926 a regional coalition of clubs in 18 southern Idaho counties formed the Southwestern Idaho Sportsmen's Association. Its agenda included fish and game management reform.
The association drafted a plan for the 1933 Legislature that called for a five-member commission appointed to staggered terms, with no more than three from any one political party, and for a civil service system for employees hired on the basis of examination scores.
In 1932, Gov. C. Ben Ross expressed support for such a plan. But it died in the Senate.
In February 1935, sportsmen formed the statewide United Fish and Game Associations of Idaho. They returned with essentially the same proposal. Despite the support of this group, it got no help from Gov. Ross, and it failed in the Legislature.
Meanwhile interest in wildlife conservation was growing across the country.
In 1936, the Idaho Conservation Council - a newly formed coalition of sportsmen's groups - changed its name to the Idaho Wildlife Federation and joined the national federation, which was renamed the National Wildlife Federation.
Using a 1912 amendment to the Idaho constitution allowed voters to put a proposed law on the ballot and enact it by majority vote. A petition to put the proposed commission bill on the ballot as an initiative in 1936 did not get enough signatures.
With fish and game management still on their minds, a group of Ada County Fish and Game League members gathered regularly at Kelly's Club Café in Boise. They drafted a plan based on an initiative adopted by Missouri voters and the 1935 Idaho commission legislation. R.G. Cole, a league member, was president of the Idaho Conservation Council.
The plan called for a five-member commission of people with a demonstrated interest in wildlife and no more than three from any political party. Commission would hire a fish and game director and would have the authority to determine season and bag limits. Employees would be hired on merit and could be fired only for cause. It included the policy that wildlife would be preserved, protected, perpetuated and managed.
The Idaho Wildlife Federation with about 10,000 members endorsed the proposed legislation, which was introduced in the Legislature in February 1937. The house passed it 38-21, but it failed in the senate 28-14. Opponents said it would be too expensive for hunters and anglers, even though the commissioners would serve without pay and limited annual expenses.
Sportsmen felt betrayed, but they took the defeat as a challenge and vowed to be back the following year. League members continued to meet at Kelly's Club. Game Warden R.W. McIntyre complained that a bunch of poachers in Boise were trying to take away his job. The group adopted the name, and the Poachers Club still exists today.
In 1938 sportsmen were better organized. The initiative process was their weapon of choice to bring back the failed legislative proposal from 1937.
They had seven weeks to gather at least 21,000 certified signatures of registered voters needed to get the petition on the November ballot. On July 7, Cole, Martin and McGrath delivered petitions with 24,000 signatures from around the state to Secretary of State Ira H. Masters. Another 4,000 local signatures were delivered by the deadline.
But signatures were not enough. To win, the initiative also must have a majority of the total votes cast for governor. Supporters launched publicity campaigns leading up to the election. They organized rallies and parades and handed out fliers.
Three days after the election, the results were still uncertain. Some thought the initiative might have barely passed.
The final count on November 29 was overwhelming. The initiative passed with 118,000 votes to 37,442 - 76 percent of the total votes cast. The results included a majority in every county.
On December 10, 1938, Lt. Gov. Charles Gossett appointed Walter Fiscus of Potlatch, Bird Hawley of Melba, George Booth of Burley, Stanley Easton of Kellogg and Alton R. Howell of Idaho Falls as the first Idaho Fish and Game Commissioners.
The voters of Idaho, 25 years after the defeat of the first reform proposal, had transformed fish and wildlife management in Idaho.