What’s ailing elk in the upper Clearwater River basin isn’t a mystery.
The habitat that was once ideal for elk has aged and led to a dramatic drop in numbers. Predators like gray wolves and, to a lesser extent, black bears and mountain lions, are holding them down.
Fix those two things — reduce predator populations and convert the habitat to include more young forests and brush fields — and elk are likely to rebound.
“It’s a two-prong thing. Fish and Game needs to responsibly manage wildlife including predators and we think our land management agencies also need to responsibly manage habitat as it relates to wildlife,” said Dave Cadwallader, supervisor of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Clearwater Region.
The diagnosis and prescription have been talked about for at least 20 years, if not more. They were recently given renewed emphasis by being included in Fish and Game’s 10-year elk management plan.
The problem — both of those things are really difficult to achieve.
“I think everybody knows what needs to happen but nobody can really do it,” said Leo Crane, a retired outfitter from Orofino.
Backcountry fires and front country logging have been tagged as the best way to fix habitat in the Lolo Zone, and treating noxious weeds is one of the main habitat treatments prescribed for the Selway Zone.
Using fire is dependant upon a mix of human and natural conditions that rarely align. Often, the forests blanketing the Lochsa and North Fork of the Clearwater drainages — the country that makes up the Lolo Zone — are naturally wet enough to prevent fires from growing large enough to create good elk habitat. Crane calls it the “asbestos forest.”
When the upper Clearwater is dry, the entire region is often plagued by extreme fire danger and heavy smoke from existing fires. Under those conditions, U.S. Forest Service officials sometimes lack the leeway to allow fires that might improve habitat to burn, or to start prescribed fires that will produce even more smoke.
Logging is constrained by environmental concerns and happens on a much smaller scale than in decades past. The Forest Service has started to treat weeds in the Selway Zone. But the infestations are so advanced that it will likely take decades to reverse.
Idaho is in the midst of its third consecutive wolf hunting season. Harvest is high in some places that have good road access. Hunters and trappers have killed 70 wolves this season in the Panhandle Region and 36 in the Dworshak-Elk City Zone. But in places where access is difficult, harvest is anemic. Only eight wolves have been killed in the Selway Zone and 15 in the Lolo.
“We don’t have very high harvest,” said Jim White, one of the architects of the department’s elk management plan. “Either you can’t get there, or it’s really expensive, or you have to spend more time than most people have these days.”
The department prefers to manage predators through hunting and trapping. But its predator management plan for the Selway and Lolo zones call for extraordinary methods when necessary.
The department has used aerial gunning in the past, and has paid its employees to trap wolves. Although neither has been highly successful, Cadwallader said both could be employed in the future.
“We may have to consider all the tools in the toolbox and look at some other things down the road if we continue to not meet (elk) objectives,” he said.
Many hunters have been calling on the department to do more to reduce predation and that part of the plan has won some praise.
“Idaho Fish and Game is getting it right if they are going to do this,” said Donald Thornton, an 85-year-old hunter form Juliaetta who fondly recalls the good-old-days of elk hunting in the upper Clearwater. “If they are going to have elk they have to get rid of the predators.”
On the habitat front, the department is trying to convince federal land managers to do more. For the first time, its elk management plan calls for habitat improvements, something it has no control over.
“We have not made habitat a large component of the majority of our species plans in the past and with this elk plan we tried to do that,” White said. “We are realizing we can’t just manage big game populations with harvest and management of hunters. We have to be a main player on the habitat issue too. That was kind of recognized in past plans, but we didn’t get down to specifics of what we thought needed to be done, probably because we weren’t the ones doing it.”
The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest manages habitat in the Lolo and Selway, while the IDFG is responsible for managing wildlife. White said the prescriptions in the elk plan are designed to help the Forest Service justify projects that will help elk. The department has temporarily loaned one of its wildlife biologists to the federal agency so it has more manpower and elk expertise.
It is also participating in a new elk research sponsored by the Clearwater Basin Collaborative. The study is designed to produce detailed data that will indicate what types of habitat projects will provide the most benefit to elk (see related story). It is hoped it will help the U.S. Forest Service justify some of the things it wants to do to help elk.
“To just say Jim White knows where to go to do a timber sale or a prescribed burn for elk, that doesn’t fly when you are writing an EA or an EIS,” he said.
Elk have been declining for decades and those long involved in efforts to reverse the trend know even if the latest efforts work, it’s going to take time.
“I won’t live to see anything improve. I’m almost 80 years old now, and I will never see it,” Crane said. “It’s going to take generations if everything works right.”