Dual ills face Idaho elk herd



Two graphics in a draft of Idaho’s new elk plan clearly display all there is to know about the state’s backcountry elk herds.

The highlighted maps show that remote units like the Lolo and Selway suffer dual ills of poor habitat and high predation.

Elk in the Lolo Zone, once one of the prime elk-hunting destinations on the planet, have been on persistent and steady decline for nearly 20 years. Biologists have set a long-term objective for the zone of 6,100 to 9,100 cows and 1,300 to 1,900 bulls. During the last population survey, biologists counted just 1,358 cows and 594 bulls.

It’s a similar tale for the nearby Selway Zone. There the objective calls for 4,900 to 7,300 cows and 1,050 to 1,550 bulls. The most recent survey showed just 3,381 cows and 934 bulls. Not surprisingly, the draft plan calls for liberal predator seasons, culling of wolves by state and federal wildlife officials and efforts to improve habitat.

The emphasis on habitat isn’t new, but efforts to control wolves is. When the last elk plan was written there were few wolves in north central Idaho.

“We have another predator we are dealing with and they have definitely had some impacts in some zones,” said Dave Koehler, an Idaho Fish and Game wildlife biologist at Lewiston. “There is definitely a much higher emphasis than we have had in previous plans simply because the difference on the ground.”

The plan also calls for the department to increase involvement with habitat improvement planning efforts of the U.S. Forest Service. The department has assigned wildlife biologist Clay Hickey from its Lewiston office to work full time with counter parts on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest.

Elk objectives for the rest of the zones in the Clearwater region have not changed much from previous plans. However, it does call for predators to be aggressively managed and habitat to be improved when elk are below objective in the Dworshak and Elk City zones.

The Hells Canyon Zone will see reductions in the number of bull permits offered to hunters, and opportunities to take cow elk will increase. Koehler said elk in the zone are becoming too numerous for the habitat to support them. Calf-to-cow ratios have dropped below objectives during the past two surveys, indicating calf survival is in decline.

“We feel we are seeing some density-dependent symptoms, indicating we probably have more elk out there than our habitat will support,” he said. “We are going to ramp up harvest on cows and back off on bulls.”

The draft plan was released late last week, and the agency is taking public comment. Plan architect Toby Boudreau in the agency’s Boise headquarters said the plan is meant to be a blueprint for elk management. The department sought to maintain and improve elk hunting opportunity and quality.

He said the top three problems hindering elk populations throughout the state are predation, habitat and conflicts with agriculture.

“Some places we are limiting the elk population because we have depredation issues, so we are removing elk to reduce that impact and other places it’s clearly predators that has caused some problems.”

He said while crafting the plan, department officials heard from hunters that they want the opportunity to hunt every year. But others said they want quality hunts with the opportunity to take big bulls.

To provide both, some units have been set aside for trophy hunting where few tags are offered through a lottery. Those areas appeal to trophy hunters. In other areas, the state will maintain over-the-counter tag sales but hunters will find fewer mature bulls there.

“This is a blueprint for how we are going to make elk hunting opportunities better and how we are going to stabilize elk populations in some areas.”

The plan can be viewed at http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/elkplanning.