Idaho rewriting state's elk plan

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Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists are in the preliminary stages of rewriting the state's elk management plan. The plan sets goals for the state's elk herds and creates hunts to meet those goals.

Nailing Jell-O to the ceiling would be an easier task.

Faced with elk hunters who want it all and a litany of ever-changing challenges to the state's roughly 100,000 elk, biologists are trying to write a plan that will appease everyone.

All things equal and making every hunter happy, the plan would continue mostly unfettered opportunity for hunters, who want to be in the woods with their friends and family but nobody else. It should also create trophy bulls while not hampering access for a hunting community that is more and more dependent on off-highway vehicles.

And it must accomplish those divergent goals while not increasing complaints from some farmers who are tired of elk eating their hard-earned profits.

And it must minimize the effects of a growing predator population that now includes wolves.

Somebody should provide the biologists with the wobbly dessert and a nail.

"We definitely have our hands full," said Toby Boudreau, Fish and Game's statewide deer and elk coordinator. "It is a good task, though."

Fish and Game's last elk management plan dates back to 1998. It created a zone system that ties hunters to specific areas and offered incentives to pull hunters away from hunting big bulls during the most popular hunting times.

The plan largely has worked but it is now dated. Wolves and ATVs are now more prevalent, and elk populations in certain parts of the state -- namely Idaho's wild heart -- are struggling.

More than 20 of the state's wildlife biologists have spent a year studying other states' elk plans. They will present general proposals to the Fish and Game Commission in January. The seven-man commission -- which is charged with setting Fish and Game policy -- will craft options that will go out for public comment in February and March.

If things go according to design, the commission will adopt the new elk plan in July 2013. Rule changes prompted by the new plan will go into effect in 2014.

"Basically, we need to figure out ways that we can allow people to hunt for elk but still maintain places where we can have trophy opportunity," Boudreau said.

To guide their effort, biologists are relying on a 2012 survey of nearly 2,800 elk hunters conducted by the University of Idaho.

The survey shows a passionate group of hunters that wants a chance at huge bulls but doesn't want to give up much to grow those trophies.

"People want to have their cake and eat it, too," said Daryl Meints, wildlife manager in the Upper Snake Region and member of the planning team. "Elk hunters want more elk, want more bulls and want bigger bulls, but they want to hunt every year. It presents us with a difficult challenge."

Hunters have always wanted it all. They will always want it all.

Fish and Game's challenge is to try to unify those opposing goals with a mixture of permissive general hunts and tightly regulated controlled hunts.

Hunter desires also need to be weighed against biologic realities, such as landscapes that can't produce more elk and social pressures to keep elk numbers down.

"I didn't say this was going to be easy," Meints said. "And not everybody is going to be happy."

Boudreau and Meints said everything is on the table right now. Biologists could stay the course with current plans or they could swing to more liberal hunting opportunities. They could also offer more restrictive hunting to grow more elk or bigger elk.

Boudreau believes it is critical for hunters to get involved.

"There is going to be a whole suite of options," he said. "If the public thinks we need to change things, we are open to it. We just need to hear from people."

Let the Jell-O nailing begin.