THE FOLLOWING ARE PRESS RELEASES FROM THE IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF FISH & GAME
St. Joe Elk Herd Shows Signs of Improvement
By Wayne Wakkinen, Panhandle Region
Elk hunting in the Panhandle has a long and rich tradition. For many years the Panhandle was one of the very few places in the United States that had a general either-sex elk hunt that allowed modern centerfire rifles. In most places, antlerless elk have been managed under limited entry controlled “cow” hunts, or imposed weapon restrictions such as archery-only hunts.
Unfortunately, in 2012, low calf:cow ratios observed during winter elk surveys caused Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) to eliminate the general either-sex elk hunt. So what caused the low calf:cow ratios and is there any encouraging news from current surveys?
The low ratios were not caused by a single issue, but rather a combination of factors. These include declining habitat quality, predation by black bears and mountain lions and wolves, changes in the ability of people to access areas, and technology that can increase hunting success rates. Additionally there are things that people cannot control, such as winter severity and summer drought.
Some of these factors create a cascading effect. For example, declining habitat quality can result in cows in poor body condition. This in turn can result in lower birth weights of calves, something that’s been shown to be an important factor in calf survival. The condition of a cow elk can affect the ability to survive severe winters and to escape predators.
What can IDFG do to improve elk hunting in the Panhandle? Because the current situation is caused by many factors, the solution will also have to be multi-pronged.
The first step that IDFG took was the unpopular decision to eliminate the general season on antlerless elk. The change resulted is an increase in cow survival, thus preserving the breeding stock that is going to be necessary to rebuild elk herds.
Another step taken was the liberalization of predator seasons. Black bear and mountain lion seasons have been lengthened and in some units hunters can now use electronic calls and a second tag. Wolf hunting and trapping seasons have been lengthened region-wide and hunters and trappers can take multiple wolves.
But these steps are only part of the solution. Without a long term commitment focused on improving the quality of elk habitat, gains in elk survival will be more difficult to come by.
Elk prefer younger forests that provide nutritious browse. The 1910 fire and large fires in the 1920s and 1930s created expansive shrubfields that were conducive to a growing elk herd. That, coupled with widespread predator reductions, resulted in a very robust elk population starting in the 1950s. These shrubfields are now near or over 100 years old. They don’t provide the nutrition they once did, and further, they can be so thick that elk become more vulnerable to predation.
IDFG is working with major landowners, primarily the U. S. Forest Service, to manage forests to benefit elk and other ungulates. Prescribed fire in old shrubfields can help, as can well-designed timber harvest.
Is any of this working? There are encouraging signs that some of these efforts are having a positive effect.
During winter surveys in the Panhandle, IDFG uses a ratio of 30 calves per 100 cows as a yardstick for a healthy elk herd. As recently as 2008, ratios were as high as 43:100 in Unit 7 in the St Joe drainage, but ratios declined following the harsh winters of 2007-09. This isn’t unusual following a hard winter, but typically the ratio bounces back within a couple of years. Unfortunately, calf:cow ratios remained low in Unit 7, with winter surveys finding 9, 12 and 13 calves per 100 cows in 2012, 2013, and 2014. Why weren’t we seeing a rebound in elk numbers?
Elk can become trapped in a “predator pit”. This can happen when elk numbers are reduced for some reason, such as a hard winter, but there is still alternate prey available that support high predator numbers. In northern Idaho, white-tailed deer are abundant and prolific. They can recover quickly from population declines and in turn can support high densities of predators. The high number of predator can take enough elk to keep elk numbers low.
The good news is that surveys conducted this winter showed a substantial increase in elk calf:cow ratios. Ratios in Unit 7 above Avery averaged 30 calves per 100 cows and Unit 6 around Calder had over 40 calves per 100 cows. What happened?
Just like the cause of the decline, it is probably a combination of things. Northern Idaho experienced its third mild winter in a row, something that undoubtedly helped. Liberal hunting seasons on predators affected their numbers and have likely helped elk escape from the predator pit. If the current conditions remain the same or improve, we may see a continued improvement in the St Joe elk herds.
IDFG has no intention of eliminating any of the predator species. IDFG has an obligation to maintain populations of all wildlife in the state and that includes black bears, mountain lions, and wolves. We will, however, take steps to reduce predator numbers when they negatively impact elk or deer populations.
We also can’t lose sight of habitat issues. Predation management is expensive and labor intensive and weather events are out of our control. Long term improvements in the quality of elk habitat are an essential part of the equation for insuring the continued existence of healthy Panhandle elk herds.
Wildlife Crews Find “Robust” Elk Populations
Recent survey flights by Idaho Fish and Game wildlife staffers confirmed that elk populations in two local elk “zones” are in great shape. For several days in early January, Fish and Game biologists flew large portions of the Boise River Zone and the adjacent Smoky-Bennett Zone, counting and classifying elk in each area.
In the Boise River Zone, elk numbers totaled 7,769 animals, with cow elk (5,417) and calf elk (1,317) making up the majority of the count. More than 1,000 bulls were part of the total, and classified as follows: 448 spikes, 240 raghorn bulls and 347 mature bulls.
The calf/cow index, used to gauge the health and growth status of an elk herd, was calculated at 24 calves/100 cows. The bull/cow ratio penciled out at 19 bulls/100 cows.
Wildlife biologist Jake Powell, who spent several days in a Bell 47G helicopter counting elk, provided some perspective on the numbers. “In reference to the Department’s elk management plan, these figures exceed the population objectives for this elk herd,” Powell explained. “For example, our total cow elk objective for the Boise River Zone is a range between 3,200 and 4,800 animals. The 5,417 figure is obviously well above that which might translate into increased hunter opportunity this fall.” Powell also noted that the poor snow conditions made surveying elk a bit difficult. “We saw animals as high as 7,000 feet which required additional time and effort to survey,” Powell said.
The Smoky-Bennett Zone is new for 2015, combining the former Smoky Zone with the adjacent Bennett Hills Zone based on elk movements between the two areas. A January survey of this zone produced equally encouraging numbers.
The Smoky-Bennett Zone elk herd totaled 4,871 animals, with cow elk (2,712) and calf elk (1,173) making up the majority of the count. Nearly 1,000 bulls were part of the total, and classified as follows: 337 spikes, 349 raghorn bulls and 300 mature bulls.
The Smoky-Bennett Zone calf/cow index was calculated at 43 calves/100 cows, while the bull/cow ratio was calculated at 36 bulls/100 cows. “Both the calf/cow and bull/cow ratios are encouraging,” Fish and Game wildlife manager Daryl Meints noted. “Both ratios are signs of a very healthy elk herd.”
When the Smoky-Bennett Zone was established in 2014, new population objectives were developed as well. “Objectives for this zone, as laid out in the elk plan call for 2,000 to 3,000 cow elk, 620 to 930 total bulls and 400 to 595 adult bulls,” Meints said. “Our January counts have this herd at the top end of the cow elk objective and over objective in both bull categories. That bodes well for the 2015 elk season.”
In order to better quantify elk numbers across both the Boise River and Smoky-Bennett Zones, the two were flown simultaneously to account for some elk that move between these zones during winter months. Conducting the survey in this fashion resulted in a more representative calculation of elk numbers within and across the two zones.
Because both zones are above population objectives, increased harvest opportunity for elk in both areas has been proposed. Review and comment on 2015 big game hunting season proposals on the Fish and Game website at https://fishandgame.idaho.gov/