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IDFG Shares Oddball Wanderings Of GPS-collared Wildlife


The whup, whup, whup of a helicopter grows louder as a herd of deer flees toward a trap. A small army of Fish and Game staff and volunteers hide as the animals run into a hidden net and become entangled.

People rush to the thrashing animals, and within seconds, untangle and calm them by placing a mask over their eyes and carefully pin their legs to their bodies. Then a quick, efficient routine begins as the animals are measured, weighed, health tested, and finally, fitted with a collar.


That scene is repeated dozens of times every winter for deer and elk, and it’s one of several ways Fish and Game captures big game animals and places collars on them to track their whereabouts and learn more about their seasonal movements and habits.

F&G does most of its capture-and-collar work during winter because animals tend to be congregated, easier to spot, and it’s typically gentler on the animals to capture them in cooler weather. It’s labor-intensive, and at times dangerous, but important work for managing big game herds.

Fish and Game crews will capture and collar about 400 deer and 400 elk this winter. Most collars go on fawns and calves to track their survival over winter, then those collars fall off after a few months as the animals grow.

F&G is adding more adults to the mix this year, which also provide valuable information, including migration routes, location of fawning and calving areas, important winter and summer range, and whether animals are loyal to certain areas during winter or summer, or if they wander.

The data also plugs into Fish and Game’s “integrated population model,” which is a method of analyzing data from collars, harvest statistics and aerial surveys to determine overall game populations and whether they’re increasing or decreasing.

Radio collars have been used for decades to track animals, but advancements in GPS collars that link with satellites give Fish and Game biologists a better opportunity to learn about animals without having to track them in the field, which they have to do with VHF radio collars. A biologist can track an animal with a GPS collar in real time from any computer and know exactly where they are, where they’ve been, and night or day in any weather for up to four years.

When an animal dies, the collar also emits a mortality signal when it remains stationary for a prolonged period. That triggers biologists to go into the field, find the carcass and determine the cause of death by performing a “necropsy,” which is an animal version of an autopsy. If it was killed by a predator, they can usually determine whether it was a bear, mountain lion or wolf based on how it was killed and how the animal, or animals, fed on it.

“We have a better handle on what’s causing mortality, and that’s a big benefit of GPS collars over radio collars,” said Mike Elmer, F&G’s data coordinator.

Aside from providing lots of important data, GPS collars also provide some interesting (and entertaining) insights and head-scratching moments when animals do the unexpected, and here are some examples.

Whitetail maternity migration?

White-tailed deer are known for being home bodies, and unlike their mule deer cousins, they don’t typically make seasonal migrations. But one did, and University of Idaho graduate student Kayte Groth explains the unexpected travels of a whitetail doe:

In spring of 2017, we captured 40 white-tailed does by helicopter and placed GPS collars on them, which allows me to track locations every 15 minutes. I noticed a particular doe was captured in April in Middle Potlatch Creek canyon just southeast of Moscow.

The doe remained there for about two months until about 4 a.m. on June 12, when she left the canyon. Two days and 20 miles later, she arrived at a new destination and settled on a canyon rim overlooking the Snake River.

She remained there until July 25, then traveled 20 miles back to her original capture location in Middle Potlatch Creek.

“Although we aren’t certain why this particular doe embarked on such a journey, we speculate it was due to fawning,” Groth said.

She may have felt safer on the canyon rim, and once she felt that her fawn was big enough to avoid predators, she returned. Traveling back with a newborn fawn likely slowed her travels and might explain why it only took her two days to reach the fawning area, but six days to return home to Middle Potlatch Creek.

Vagabond cow elk

We often think we know how and why big game animals migrate. They typically follow the family or herd as it travels from winter range to summer range and back again. It’s a fairly predictable migration as animals often use the same, or similar, winter and summer ranges throughout their lives.

Or do they?

Senior Wildlife Technician Clint Rasmussen tracked two cow elk that seemed to have first-class cases of wanderlust.

One was captured and collared in 2015 about 6 miles east of Fairfield in January 2015 while on winter range. She then migrated about 40 miles almost due north and summered near Alturas Lake.

Nothing out of the ordinary there, but in the 2016 winter, she overshot Fairfield and proceeded nearly 75 miles south from Alturas Lake and wintered in the Hammett area near the Snake River. Maybe winter conditions forced her farther south that year, or something else, it’s difficult to know. But she returned to Alturas Lake again for the summer of 2016.

Clearly she enjoys summers at Alturas Lake, and if you’ve ever seen this sparkling mountain lake in the Sawtooths, it’s easy to see why. But apparently, she isn’t as faithful to her winter range because, in 2017, instead of following the geese south, she headed northeast about 45 miles to Antelope Flat near Clayton.

Where did she go for summer, 2017? You guessed it. Alturas Lake.

Another cow elk was captured in January 2015 on the east side of Magic Reservoir about 25 miles north of Shoshone. Then it migrated about 80 miles west during the following spring and summered south of Arrowrock Reservoir, which is east of Boise. In winter of 2016, it took a relatively short hop southwest about 25 miles and wintered near Mountain Home.

Her wanderlust kicked in again the following winter, and she traveled northwest about 65 miles and summered north of Banks above the North Fork of the Payette River, then wintered about 30 miles south in the Boise Foothills.

Her travels ended on May 13, 2017 just south of Arrowrock Reservoir when her collar registered a mortality signal. Biologists found the dead elk and determined she was killed by a mountain lion.

Collar malfunction, or visiting Uncle Ted?

Biologist Josh Rydalch shares a story about a wandering mule deer, and how GPS collars have changed what he jokingly refers to as “collar and foller” biology.

Rydalch had a mule deer fawn GPS collared in in the Birch Creek area west of Dubois in hunting Unit 59A in December 2015.

In April 2016, it started traveling north as green up occurred, which is like “surfing the green wave to summer range,” Rydalch said.

The deer took a long jaunt north near Bozeman, Montana, and by late July/early August, it reached the Belgrade area. It lived on media-mogul Ted Turner’s ranch that summer, a distance of about 120 miles from where it was collared. But the unusual thing about this deer is it didn’t return in the fall like most mule deer.

If the deer had a traditional VHF radio collar, biologists would have to physically travel to the general proximity of the animal to determine its exact location, and it’s highly unlikely they would have traveled to Belgrade, Montana to look for it.

“This is an example of what these GPS collars are showing us,” Rydalch said. “In the past, we likely would have lost track of this deer and probably dismissed it as having a malfunctioning VHF collar and wrote it off.”

The doe died about a year after it was collared, and with permission from the Turners, biologists ventured onto the ranch, found the doe and determined a mountain lion killed it.

“I am grateful they let us on to investigate the scene and recover the GPS collar,” Rydalch said. “We wouldn’t have known the animal’s location or cause of death without it.”
Wandering, lovestruck rams

GPS collars provide an interesting glimpse into the lives of bighorn sheep. Biologist Rachel Curtis has been part of team of biologists tracking animals in the Owyhee Desert, where they captured and collared rams and ewes in 2016 and 2017.

It’s an important time for bighorns because prior to collaring the animals, there was a deadly pneumonia outbreak in Oregon’s adjacent bighorn herds, and biologists needed to know if it affected Idaho’s sheep.

But the collars showed Curtis much more than whether an animal was alive or dead. It showed seasonal movements, or lack thereof, and how rams behavior differs from ewes.

“It’s been interesting to watch their movements for the last two years because the ewes have been very loyal to their home range and stay close to the canyon, particularly when their lambs are young,” she said.

Rams, on the other hand, are prone to wandering.

“Sometimes we can tell what’s motivating them to move, and other times, we can only guess,” Curtis said.

As soon as hunting season starts, rams move if they are spooked. They’re often bumped out of their typical home range and travel miles away and on the opposite side of a ridge. One traveled about six miles after being disturbed.

While six miles might be an afternoon jaunt for deer or elk in sagebrush country, in the Owyhee Canyonlands, it means navigating steep canyons, crossing rivers and finding a notch through vertical bluffs on the other side, and often repeating that sequence several times.

But that’s their home turf, and as Curtis observed, rams aren’t shy about roaming, especially when the rut starts.

One went on a walkabout looking for ewes that took him five miles to the rim of a plateau overlooking Duck Valley. Not finding any ewes there, he stayed one night and returned home the next day.

And sometimes rams roam for unknown reasons. One ram was very faithful to his home range in a particular stretch of the Owyhee River, or up one small side canyon. But in April 2017, he spent a week walking 15 miles upriver, then turned around and went back.

One of the key facets of bighorn management is disease control, so it’s important that biologists know if bighorns leave one herd and intermingle with others, and information provided by GPS collars assist biologists in knowing if that occurs.
Calendar migrations

It’s not always individual animals that surprise biologists. F&G’s Elmer sees certain deer herds that migrate seasonally, regardless of the weather. Unit 39’s mule deer in the Boise River drainage are a prime example. Rain, shine or snow, they start migrating downhill during the third week of October.

“It’s like clockwork,” Elmer said. “For this particular group of animals, it seems to be a time-frame thing more than weather.”

He said they’ve learned other herds in south/central Idaho have similar time-based migrations regardless of the weather.

GPS collars have changed the game for biologists and technicians by providing and cataloging an animal’s location, rather than F&G staff driving several times a month to track animals via radio signals, or flying in aircraft to locate them.

When an animal with a radio collar died, unless the timing was perfect, it might take days or weeks to discover it died and find the carcass. By then, a necropsy was difficult, not to mention smelly, and getting good information on what killed the animal was often a challenge.

Idaho Water Chemistry Affecting Hatchery Sockeye Survival?


Idaho Fish and Game’s sockeye recovery program has overcome many challenges in preserving the species, and scientists are continuing to learn and improve as they transition from staving off extinction to growing Idaho’s sockeye population.

Fish and Game’s Assistant Fisheries Chief Paul Kline said F&G biologists think they’ve answered a nagging question about its relatively new sockeye hatchery in Springfield. The hatchery succeeded in raising lots of young sockeye, but the fish have survived poorly after being released to migrate to the Pacific.


A hard journey made harder

Biologists found differences in water hardness between Springfield Hatchery in Southeast Idaho where the fish are raised from eggs and Redfish Lake Creek near Stanley where they’re released.  Differences in water chemistry between the two waters may be adding stress to fish that are already stressed from “smoltification” – a period when they migrate downstream and their bodies transition from freshwater to saltwater.

Biologists are investigating higher-than-expected mortality that started in 2015, the first year Springfield Hatchery’s sockeye were released for migration. That year, about 37 percent of the young sockeye survived the trip between Lower Granite Dam about 30 miles downstream from Lewiston and Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, which is the last dam the fish cross enroute to the Pacific.

But the spring of 2015 was a low water year for migrating young salmon, which need high flows to flush them to the ocean. Upper Columbia River sockeye, Idaho’s closest geographic cousins, also had poor survival.

However, river conditions and survival of Upper Columbia River sockeye improved in 2016, but survival of Idaho’s sockeye dropped, signaling Idaho’s fish were facing other challenges.

Solving the mystery through science

Biologists explored potential causes and improved or eliminated some possibilities, such as additional stress associated with high levels of dissolved gas, and stress from loading fish on trucks and transporting smolts from the hatchery to the release site.

Unlike other salmon species that Fish and Game has decades of experience raising in hatcheries, sockeye production is relatively new. Sockeye hatcheries are common in Alaska and Canada, and over 20 years ago, Idaho biologists followed guidance from these programs to establish rearing and fish-health protocols for the Eagle Hatchery Sockeye Salmon Captive Broodstock Program. That program likely saved Idaho’s sockeye from extinction.

The same protocols are also being followed at the Springfield Hatchery.  Kline pointed out most of Alaskan and British Columbia hatcheries are in the same river systems where the fish are released, not raised off site with a different water source like at the Springfield Hatchery.

The water at Springfield comes from wells with a hardness of about 200 milligrams per liter of calcium carbonate, compared with Redfish Lake Creek at less than 20 milligrams per liter. Kline described Redfish Lake Creek as “almost like distilled water” Whereas, Springfield’s water is typical for Southeastern Idaho.

Kline pointed out water hardness is not an issue for raising sockeye from eggs, and the young fish do well in the Springfield Hatchery. There is little to nothing in the scientific literature regarding water hardness in relation to rearing sockeye in hatcheries, however big changes in water chemistry can spell trouble for any species of fish.

“We’re treading on fresh ground here,” he said.

Biologists theorized that when young salmon enter the smolt phase of their life and transition from freshwater to saltwater, the additional stress of going from hard water to soft water may contribute to higher-than-expected mortality.

Biologists at Idaho Fish and Game’s Eagle Fish Health Laboratory experimented with a few young sockeye, testing their response after being trucked and transferred to tanks filled with hard water from Springfield, soft water from Redfish Lake Creek or Salmon River water with hardness roughly between those two.

A smoking gun?

They found young sockeye transferred from Springfield well water to Redfish Lake Creek water had elevated cortisol levels, which is an indicator of stress, and those levels increased over time. Whereas fish that were transferred to water taken from Springfield’s well, or the Salmon River, quickly began to recover from the stress of the road trip.

Spreading the risk and learning

Biologists are developing several strategies to test their theory and ease young sockeye’s transition from hard water to soft water. This fall, some fish were released directly into Redfish Lake as pre-smolts, and they will spend the winter in the lake before naturally migrating downstream through Redfish Lake Creek and into the Salmon River.

Others will be raised at the Sawtooth Hatchery in raceways that would normally be used for young Chinook salmon, but a low 2017 Chinook return means there’s temporary space available.

The remaining fish will continue to be raised at the Springfield hatchery, and biologists are continuing to refine protocols to help 2018 releases go more smoothly, including gradual water softening during trucking, mixing water in trucks before fish are released, and acclimating fish for a few days in Sawtooth Hatchery’s moderately hard water before release.

Fish will be released in Redfish Lake Creek and the Salmon River near the Sawtooth Hatchery. Kline said if water hardness is the problem, the test groups should provide some answers without further endangering the entire group of young fish.

“We’re getting closer to long-term solutions, but in the mean time, we are spreading our risk,” he said.

Biologists want to solve the problem, but it’s a constant challenge considering there are many other variables in play beyond their control, including weather, river and ocean conditions. Young sockeye only migrate downstream once per year, and it takes another year to see how many return as adults.

“We want to be sure we’re checking off probable causes accurately,” Kline said. “Between 2018 and 2019, we’re going to learn a lot.”

Another bump in a long road

It can be a frustrating setback for Fish and Game biologists who’ve devoted their careers to saving sockeye from the brink of extinction, and then boosting annual adult returns from single digits, to dozens, and now to hundreds. Kline said the goal is to increase that to thousands of adult sockeye in the future.

He also tries to keep the current smolt survival in perspective. He remembers when Idaho sockeye were listed in 1991 under the federal Endangered Species Act, only four adults returned to the Sawtooth Basin. The total annual returns to Idaho between 1991 and 1999 were 23 sockeye, which included two years when none returned.

By comparison, 157 adult sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Basin in 2017, which was a down year. The 10-year average from 2008 through 2017 is 690 sockeye annually, which you can read about in this September sockeye article explaining the 2017 return.

Biologists expect more sockeye will return to Idaho each year if they can raise and release more young fish and improve their survival through the Salmon, Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific. If Springfield’s water hardness situation proves to be the culprit, Kline sees solving it as a hurdle, not a wall.

“It’s not a disaster, it’s part of what you experience when you open a new hatchery,” he said. “It’s disappointing, but we’re not going to let it get us down.”

Family Tired Of Venison Tacos? 5 Ways To Spice Up Ground Elk, Deer


We love deer and elk steaks, but you can only get so many off an animal. That means lots of wild game meat is ground into burger, but there are other options that make tasty meals and snacks.

Many hunters have their big game animals processed by professional butchers. If that’s the case, chances are good you will end up with lots of ground meat. Don’t worry, you can still use that meat for nearly everything below.


If you do your own butchering, you have more options. And a quick note about processing the meat before it’s ground. Deer or elk burger has a reputation for having “gamey” flavor, which is usually not a compliment, but it can be just as tasty as steaks of you process it with a few things in mind.

Trim, then trim some more

You want as much lean, red meat as possible. Trim as much membrane as you can, which is the white or silvery tissue that connects muscle.

Trim the fat, too. Without going into great detail, deer or elk fat is different that fat in beef or pork. Usually deer and elk fat tastes bad. That isn’t a universally held opinion, and some people say it tastes fine. The flavor of fat is partially dependent on what the animal was eating, but you will rarely have better tasting meat if you don’t trim the fat. The goal is to get as close as you can to pure, red meat going into the grinder or slow cooker.

Meat you plan to grind can be almost any size as long as it fits into your grinder, but chunks about an inch or two in diameter, or smaller, tend to grind more easily.

After you have your meat trimmed, you get to decide what to do with it.


If you’re going to make jerky, you want to thinly slice the larger chunks of meat into strips. The process then involves soaking slices in a brine and smoking or drying them. Drying can be done in a food dehydrator, smoker, or even your oven at its lowest setting with the door open ajar.

There are many jerky recipes available in cook books and on the Internet. Remember when making jerky the pieces should be dry, but still supple. Too dry and it will be brittle and crunchy, which is overcooked. Although jerking is a method of preserving, it’s still best to store it in the refrigerator or freezer.

Slow cooking

This is a good way to prepare a large batch of meat that you can freeze and use for future meals, such as tacos, burritos, casseroles and others.

It’s also good for extra-tough cuts of meat, such as shanks (the lower leg muscles). Cut the meat into roughly even-sized chunks so they will take about the same duration to cook.

This meat also works well for stew, chili and soups and other slow-cook recipes.

Patty sausage

If you have lots of ground meat from your butcher, making patty sausage is still an option, and it’s simple to do. All you have to do is thaw the meat and mix in seasoning. You also may want to add ground pork to increase the fat content, which will hold it together for cooking and make it juicier.

You can make breakfast sausage or Italian-style sausage that tastes great when mixed with spaghetti sauce and other dishes, depending on what spices and seasoning you use.

If you’re grinding sausage from scratch, plan to add between 10 percent to 50 percent pork to your venison, depending on your taste. Use inexpensive cuts of pork, which gives it a milder flavor, and also gives you more sausage.

Summer sausage

This sausage is a little trickier because you have to stuff the meat into sausage casings, but you can also form the meat into logs by wrapping them in plastic wrap, twisting the ends tight and smoothing out the log before slowly unwrapping to keep the shape even.

After grinding a mixture of venison and pork and stuffing the casing or making logs, you smoke the sausages or logs at low temperature for several hours. These make fantastic appetizers, and you can freeze them for later use.

Pepperoni sticks

These are tasty and great pocket snacks for your next hunting or fishing trip. They’re a little more work because making them requires mixing the spices and also stuffing them into long, narrow casings, but it’s nothing you can’t handle. You can find the casings at specialty stores, sporting goods stores or online, as well as whole kits for making pepperoni sticks. If it’s too much of a hassle, many meat processors will make it for you

More tips for processing game meat

* Pay attention to sanitary guidelines and cooking temperatures. Use a meat thermometer to ensure meat has reached the proper temperature when smoking or drying.
* You know what flavors you like and dislike, so learn the basics of a recipe and adjust to suit your tastes. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
If it’s your first attempt with a new recipe, start with a small batch. If it doesn’t turn out how you like, you can change it for your next batch.
* If you’re making patty sausage, cook some as soon as it’s done. Put a small, thin patty in an oiled frying pan, cook it a few minutes and taste it, then add more seasoning if needed.
* When freezing, don’t put too much meat into one package. Aim for each package to hold enough for one meal.
* Take advantage of prepackaged seasoning mixes. They take a lot of the hassle out of figuring out which spices to use and how much, and many are created for wild game, not domestic meats.
* Get a kitchen scale that will weigh about 10 pounds of meat. It will ensure you get the right ratio of game meat to pork, pork fat, or beef fat.
* Use a vacuum sealer if you plan to freeze summer sausages, jerky or pepperoni for later use. It will prevent freezer burn or drying.
* Create a personal cookbook. Set up a folder on your computer’s desktop and put notes and recipes in there. It’s easy to forget what recipes, seasoning or game-meat/fat ratios you used, especially if you take recipes off the Internet, and you may not find them next time you look.


Idaho Mulls Clearwater, Snake Keeper Steelhead Season

Inland Northwest steelheaders may get a keeper season after all.

With enough A-run hatchery fish now expected back to Idaho to meet broodstock goals, managers there are asking for feedback on a proposal to open a season though with a reduced bag limit and maximum size restriction on prime waters.

IDFG says that there will be a surplus of 22,000 of the smaller summer-runs and is taking comment on a plan to open the Clearwater system and lower Snake for the harvest of up to just two a day, neither of which could be longer than 28 inches.


That’s an attempt to prevent overharvesting as well as get as many of the bigger B-runs — both hatchery and wild — back as possible.

Idaho’s upper Snake and rivers further up Hells Canyon may be opened too with the same bag, but the size restriction would be shed from the Couse Creek ramp on the Washington side, upstream.

In a normal year, the daily limit is three hatchery steelhead and no size restriction.

Washington steelhead managers are also watching developments.

“We’re waiting to follow Idaho’s lead,” said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Madonna Luers, who added it may be a couple weeks before a decision is made, per a report by Eric Barker of the Lewiston Tribune.

This year’s worst-in-40-years Inland Northwest steelhead forecast of 112,000 initially sparked fishery restrictions all the way down to the mouth of the Columbia, inside cool-water refuges in the lower river and gorge, as well as the Snake and its tributaries.

With July dam counts just fractions of average and a dire mid-August inseason update of just roughly 60,000, those looked more than warranted. IDFG closed retention before any fish got anywhere near the Gem State.

State biologists now say that 113,000 steelhead are expected to return past Bonneville Dam this year — still very low, relatively speaking, but they took the fishery proposal to the Fish and Game Commission yesterday.

The panel wanted to consider public comment. To see their pitch, and to comment, go here.

Public input is being taken through Oct. 10.

Meanwhile, the commission went ahead and approved a coho season on the Clearwater and its North and South Forks, daily limit two and a season limit of 10. IDFG says there are enough of the Nez Perce-reintroduced salmon to meet hatchery needs and provide a “modest” fishery.

IDFG Reports Results Of Elk Calf Mortality Study In Couer d’Alene, St. Joe Basins


By Laura Wolf, Wildlife Regional Biologist

The Panhandle region placed 172 GPS radio-collars on 6-month old elk calves in the Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe River drainages since 2015.  A couple reasons we collared so many elk was to determine survival rates and for those elk that didn’t make it, find out why they died.


The GPS collars have a signal that activates once the collar hasn’t moved for several hours, indicating a mortality.  Next, the collar sends an e-mail to biologists with the location of the collar.  It’s pretty amazing technology, something that wasn’t available just a few years ago, and it’s giving us new insight into what’s affecting the elk population.  We try to hike out to every dead elk within a day or two of receiving the mortality signal so we have the best chance of figuring out what happened.

It can be difficult to look at a partially consumed elk carcass and determine how the animal died.  The more of the elk that is there, the easier it is to figure out what happened.  We want to find out why it died, or in our language, determine cause-specific mortality.  That’s why we try to get to the elk as soon as possible.

Once we get to the location and find the elk, we take a crime scene approach.  We conduct a careful search around the carcass looking for predator tracks, hair, drag trails in the dirt or snow, broken branches that indicate a chase, and blood on vegetation or the ground.  Next, we perform a necropsy (basically an autopsy for an animal).  We skin the entire animal looking for teeth or claw punctures and bruising on the skin or muscles (which means that something injured it while it was still alive).  We look for broken bones, parasites, and abnormalities of the internal organs.  Lastly, we saw open a femur bone to examine bone marrow.  Bone marrow is normally hard and white and is the last fat reserve the body uses during starvation.  Soft and red bone marrow means the elk was in very poor condition when it died.

The two most common predators that kill older calves in the Panhandle are mountain lions and wolves, but their kill patterns are quite distinctive, hence the crime scene approach.  Lions tend to ambush and bite the neck or throat of their prey.  The attack site and the kill site are often close together.  Lions often drag their prey to a more hidden spot and will cache the animal by covering it with snow, leaves, or needles.  Lions have a habit of shearing hair, which looks like someone cut the hair with sharp scissors.   Lions often enter the chest cavity first and eat the internal organs.


Wolves, on the other hand, are not ambush hunters.  They typically chase their prey long distances, biting hindquarters, flanks, neck, and face.  Wolves will eat the animal where it died and often scatter the carcass throughout the site as each wolf takes its own piece to consume.  Wolves will often chew on all the bones.  The site of an animal killed by wolves is often a much messier scene than that of one killed by a mountain lion.  There’s often very little of the carcass remaining when we get there.


So, what have we learned?  In the normal to mild winters of 2015 and 2016, 80% of the elk calves survived from January to June; 14% were killed by mountain lions, 3% were killed by wolves, 1% died of disease, and 2% were unknown deaths.  A survival rate of 80% for 6 month old calves is very high.


In the colder, snowy winter of 2017, 50% of the elk calves survived.  Interestingly enough, the predation rates were similar to the milder winters; 16% were killed by mountain lions and 6% were killed by wolves.  Starvation (16%), heavy parasite loads (2%), and disease (2%) accounted for the difference in survival rates among the winters.  Calves were in worse body condition in 2017 as determined by bone marrow condition.  We could not determine cause of death in 8% of the cases.


What do these calf survival rates mean for the elk population?  We are working on some modeling now, incorporating other information like cow survival rates, calf:cow ratios that we get during our winter aerial surveys, and the percent of spikes in the harvest.  Once we get the results of the modeling , we’ll report to you on that.

Our jobs can certainly be gruesome at times, but it rewarding to determine what is happening with our elk populations so we can make informed management decisions.

IDFG Closes Steelhead Retention Due To Very Low Run, But Keeps C&R Op Open


An extremely small number of steelhead returning to Idaho so far has prompted Fish and Game to reduce the bag limit on adipose-clipped hatchery steelhead to zero – closing all rivers to harvest for the fall steelhead season.

Through Aug. 14, about 400 steelhead have crossed Lower Granite Dam about 30 miles downstream from Lewiston. The 10-year average for that date is about 6,000 steelhead.  Regardless of the size of the hatchery return, anglers have been required to release any wild fish caught since 1987. Catch and release of wild fish is an important conservation tool to protect them, and it continues this year.


Closing harvest of hatchery steelhead while leaving it open for catch-and-release fishing will also help ensure enough broodstock return to steelhead hatcheries to produce the next generation of fish.

Although only a fraction of the steelhead run has crossed Lower Granite Dam, fisheries managers are tracking the run as it moves upstream.

Historic run data shows that by Aug. 15, about half of the fish should have already crossed Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, which is the first dam where the fish are counted. Through Aug. 14, only 3,900 Idaho steelhead have crossed Bonneville.

Fisheries managers are carefully watching steelhead returns, and if there’s an unexpected increase, harvest can be reopened, but at this point, that’s very unlikely. Washington and Oregon have also restricted steelhead harvest for anglers in the Columbia River to protect Idaho-bound fish.

“We realize steelhead anglers will be disappointed, and many will choose not to fish this fall as a result of the decision to close harvest,” said Lance Hebdon, Fish and Game’s anadromous fish manager. “We will continue to monitor hatchery and wild steelhead returns as the run continues to determine if changes are needed.”

Fisheries managers say they’re aware some people are concerned about the possible effects of allowing catch-and-release angling on a small return.

“Based on our experience, catch-and-release fishing has proven to be an effective conservation tool, and we’ve been able to allow it in the past while still protecting a below-average return of wild fish,” Hebdon said. “We realize that catch and release is not zero-impact, but it is very low impact. With the expected reduction in angler participation, we are confident that the protection is there. We have documented populations rebounding even with a limited number of spawners.”

Every year’s run of adults is produced by at least two years of outmigrating young fish, which provide a buffer during years of poor returns.

Fish managers know that fewer people fish for steelhead when the run is small, and even fewer will fish because harvest is not allowed. But it’s important that anglers practicing catch-and-release treat all steelhead with care and release them with minimal handling. Here are some tips for properly releasing fish unharmed.

Idaho’s steelhead runs typically fluctuate from year to year, but what makes this year unusual is an exceptionally small hatchery return at the same time as a small wild run. The 1996 steelhead run, for example, had only 7,600 wild fish, but they combined with 79,000 hatchery fish.

Fish and Game has only closed all steelhead fishing (harvest and catch and release) once in the last 43 years. Harvest restrictions and length limits have been implemented in the past for the Clearwater River, Snake and Salmon rivers to adjust for low returns.

Fisheries managers are hoping this is a short-term situation. All salmon and steelhead runs to Idaho this year have been below average, and small runs were forecasted based on early indicators last year.

Portions of this steelhead run migrated to the Pacific in 2015, which was a low-water year with early hot weather that produced hazardous river conditions for young fish leaving Idaho. Ocean productivity was also poor that year, which persisted in 2016, and made conditions even more difficult for fish.

While closing the harvest for adipose-clipped steelhead could put a damper on fall fisheries, an abundant run of fall chinook returning to Idaho will provide some good fishing opportunity. The forecast is for 27,000 chinook, and those fish are now arriving.

Fall chinook fishing season opens on Aug. 18, and anglers can harvest six adult chinook daily, and there’s no bag limit on “jack” fall chinook smaller than 24 inches. Here is the full rules and seasons brochure.

Salmon and steelhead runs tend to be cyclical, and to learn why things are likely to improve next year, read F&G wild salmon and steelhead coordinator Tim Copeland’s article about early signs pointing to improvement.

As IDFG Mulls Priest Lake Fishery’s Future, Agency Calls On Anglers To Comment


Fishing at Priest Lake isn’t what it used to be, which is fine for some anglers, but others would like to see it change. Fish and Game wants to know if the current management is still working, or if change is needed.

“We want the anglers to tell us what kind of fishing opportunity they want, which will dictate how we manage Priest Lake over the next 10 to 15 years,” Fish and Game Regional Fisheries Manager Andy Dux said.


Currently, Priest Lake is mostly a lake trout (also known as Mackinaw) fishery, and few of the once-abundant kokanee salmon remain. Native cutthroat trout are available in modest numbers, and native bull trout are nearly gone, except in Upper Priest Lake.

Historically, the lake had a larger kokanee population that supported more anglers and fishing effort, more than double the angling hours currently expended by lake trout anglers. Kokanee also provided food for lake trout and bull trout, allowing them to grow to record sizes. The current state record lake trout, a 57.5-pound monster, came from the lake in 1971, which coincided with its abundant kokanee populations.

In 2013, Fish and Game formed the Priest Lake Fishery Advisory Committee consisting of local stakeholders representing varying interests. The group worked with F&G staff over the past several years to look at Priest Lake’s current fishing opportunity, and weigh that against its potential.

The committee developed three alternatives upon which F&G is asking anglers to provide their preference.

  • Alternative 1: Continue existing management primarily for a sustainable lake trout harvest fishery and continue native fish conservation efforts in Upper Priest Lake.
  • Alternative 2: Restore a kokanee fishery capable of supporting high catch rates and harvest while enhancing native cutthroat trout and return to limited cutthroat harvest. Also, increase native bull trout to allow for a trophy  fishery, while managing for a low-density lake trout population. Continue native fish conservation efforts in Upper Priest Lake.
  • Alternative 3: Provide mixed-species fishing opportunity by reducing the lake trout population to support moderate catch rates and harvest while allowing kokanee to reach moderate densities and provide moderate catch rates. Provide conservation benefit and improve fishing for native cutthroat and bull trout. Continue native fish conservation efforts in Upper Priest Lake.

The department is hosting three public meetings in July, and you can see below for details on times and locations. F&G will also conduct a random survey of license-holders and an online opinion poll in late-summer or fall.

Why only three alternatives?

The Priest Lake Fishery Advisory Committee was tasked with developing a short list of alternatives for broader public consideration. At first, each committee member had a separate alternative, then the members worked to find common ground, make modifications and settle on three options.

Fish and Game staff provided technical guidance, which helped to focus on ideas that were most feasible and would provide the desired fishing opportunities.

Fisheries managers did not advocate for a particular option. They spent years working on the successful kokanee restoration on Lake Pend Oreille and shared with the committee some of the valuable lessons they learned in the process. Even with this guidance and experience, the alternatives for Priest Lake still face challenges and have risks.

A brief history of Priest Lake’s fishing

Priest Lake’s native sport fish are cutthroat trout, bull trout and mountain whitefish. Non-native lake trout and kokanee were introduced decades ago, and for many years, kokanee supported the lake’s most popular fishery.

Kokanee not only provided great fishing for anglers, the fish were also an important food source for bull trout and lake trout, which attained trophy sizes. That balance of predators and prey fish lasted into the 1970s, then quickly fell apart. Mysis, a small freshwater shrimp, was introduced in the late-1960s to provide more food for kokanee. Unfortunately, mysis tipped the balance in favor of lake trout, which feed on shrimp until the fish grow big enough to switch their diet to kokanee.

Mysis allowed the lake trout population to grow at the expense of kokanee, whose population crashed in the mid-to-late 1970s and have never recovered. This also happened to a lesser extent as lake trout preyed on, or outcompeted, cutthroat and bull trout. That is why Fish and Game tries to curb lake trout populations in Upper Priest Lake to relieve pressure on those native fish.

Fish and Game previously attempted to boost kokanee numbers by stocking more of them, but those efforts were thwarted by predation by the lake’s abundant lake trout. Millions of kokanee fry, as well as hundreds of thousands of juvenile cutthroat, were stocked, but to no avail.

“You have too many lake trout mouths to feed, and the kokanee disappear as soon as you put them in,” Dux said.

Are lake trout bad?

It is easy to argue that the establishment of lake trout in Priest Lake was a bad thing, but having a lake trout-dominated fishery now isn’t necessarily good or bad.

Lake trout caused declines in native cutthroat and bull trout, and collapsed the popular kokanee fishery. However, the damage they caused is largely done, and what remains is a different fishery that generates about half the angler effort on Priest Lake that it historically had.

But lake trout are a desirable sport fish for many anglers, and since the 1980s, Fish and Game has managed the Priest Lake primarily for lake trout, while focusing on conserving native fish in Upper Priest Lake.

Maintaining the current fishery is an acceptable option, so long as anglers understand what fishing will be like. In the presence of lake trout, kokanee will remain depressed except in occasional years, such as 2012, when they bumped up a bit before crashing again. Good kokanee fishing will remain sporadic and fairly unpredictable.

Lake trout are far more abundant than they were historically, offering a consistent fishery with good catch rates for anglers who target them. However, frequency of the trophy-sized lake trout has dropped from decades ago because although mysis provide a stable forage, they don’t provide enough nutrients for lake trout to reach trophy sizes.

The average lake trout is currently about 15 to 25 inches, and it generally takes 10 to 20 years for them to reach those sizes. While average size has declined, these mysis-fed lake trout have bright orange filets that are excellent table fare for anglers.

For anglers who like targeting native cutthroat trout, the existing fishery will likely offer good catch rates into the future. However, the cutthroat population will provide limited or no harvest opportunity at current levels. Bull trout are essentially nonexistent in the main lake, so they will only be encountered in Upper Priest Lake, and no harvest is allowed.

Parallels between Priest and Pend Oreille

Part of the interest many anglers have in changing Priest Lake’s fish management is the success of restoring kokanee at Lake Pend Oreille. That lake had a similar situation with a collapsed kokanee fishery following an increased lake trout population.

Fish and Game did an extensive, multi-year project to dramatically reduce lake trout and afterward saw a rapid resurgence of kokanee. The kokanee fishery was reopened, and angling effort quickly expanded. Now, anglers are  catching lots of kokanee, while others are still catching a few large lake trout and Pend Oreille’s famed trophy rainbows.

“Lake Pend Oreille is a case study that provides us with the confidence we can bring back a fishery like what Priest Lake previously supported,” Dux said.

After the recovery of kokanee at Pend Oreille, some anglers asked Fish and Game to do something similar at Priest Lake. However, other anglers value having the option to either pursue kokanee at Pend Oreille, or lake trout at Priest Lake.

That’s why fisheries managers want to learn if there’s a majority of anglers who prefer one over the other that would trigger a management change at Priest. If change is preferred, managers can determine the best strategy, what it would cost, and how to pay for it.

Sometimes a happy medium isn’t so happy

The obvious answer may seem to be splitting the difference and somewhat reducing the lake trout population in an attempt to grow more kokanee. Theoretically, it’s possible and likely would produce a fishery that appeals to the greatest number of anglers.

Unfortunately, this alternative is the least predictable. It’s difficult to know how much of a reduction in the lake trout population would be needed to produce a corresponding gain in kokanee, or how long it would last.

What’s likely to occur is a short-term see-saw between those species, a fishery that is less stable, and a constant challenge of determining the right number of lake trout to remove in order to balance the predator-to-prey ratio.

Biologists know despite short-term fluctuations, long-term conditions would still favor lake trout, so it would likely require constant, and potentially expensive, management for a modest change in the ratio between lake trout and kokanee.

“We don’t have a great track record of being able to manage for a balance between predator and prey in these big lakes systems, particulary without the level of resources we had available on Lake Pend Oreille,” Dux said.

However, if there’s an overwhelming desire for that option, biologists would do their best to make it happen.

What if nothing is done?

Simply put, the lake’s fisheries will remain mostly as they are now. Fishing will be mostly for lake trout, and their average size will remain in the 15-to-25 inch range with an occasional larger one, but Priest Lake is unlikely to produce many of the trophy-sized lake trout it had in the past.

The small population of kokanee will likely persist, and in rare years when conditions favor them, there will be a modest, but short-term, blip in the population. Fish and Game and its partners will continue to protect cutthroat and bull trout in Upper Priest Lake.

“This is the most predictable and easiest alternative to implement,” Dux said. “The current fishery certainly is good in the eyes of many anglers, and if this option has broad support, Fish and Game will stay the course with existing management.”

Public involvement opportunities

Anglers and others interested in the management planning process for Priest Lake have several opportunities to comment.

Public meetings will be held:

  • Thursday, July 13, 6:30 p.m PDT in Coolin at The Inn at Priest Lake.
  • Monday, July 24, 6:30 p.m. PDT in Priest River at the Priest River Events Center, 5399 U.S. 2.
  • Thursday, July 27, 6:30 pm PDT in Coeur d’Alene at the Panhandle Region Office, 2885 W. Kathleen Ave.

Later this summer, Fish and Game will mail out surveys to a randomly selected number anglers, and at the same time, make an online poll available on Fish and Game’s website (idfg.idaho.gov) for whoever wants to take it. Fisheries managers plan to make a decision on how to proceed with the lake’s management by the end of 2017.

Panhandle Lake Yields 3 New State Records — In Same Day


The state record for Tiger Trout stood at 17.5 inches before Free Fishing Day on June 10. By the end of the day, it had been broken not once, not twice, but three times at Deer Creek Reservoir during the fishing events sponsored by IDFG and the Pierce/Weippe Chamber of Commerce.


To start off, a 17.6-inch fish was caught, just barely breaking the record. This new record quickly fell, as an 18-inch fish and a 19.5-inch fish were caught  The new record was landed by Richard Miller, and weighed 2.65 lbs. Mr. Miller’s fish has been verified and certified as the new state record. Congratulations Richard! This up and coming fishery is sure to produce some even bigger Tiger Trout in the future, so get out there and see if you can break the new record!

A tiger trout is a hybrid between a brown trout and a brook trout. They’re a sterile fish that is stocked in a few select location around the state which you can see on Fish and Games Fish Planner page.

If you want to get a better look at tiger trout, check out this video when they were stocked in Deer Creek Reservoir.

‘Free Fishing Season’ Returns To Northwest Starting This Weekend

Early June is “free fishing season” here in the Northwest, a chance to get friends and family without a license out and with all kinds of events and opportunities to take advantage of this weekend and next.


First up is Free Fishing Weekend in Oregon, June 3-4, which ODFW calls “the perfect weekend to take a friend or family member out fishing, crabbing or clamming.”

The agency has lined up a mess of events all over the state Saturday, and for even more ideas, check out the weekly Recreation Report!

Idaho’s Free Fishing Day is June 10, and Fish and Game will be hosting activities across the Gem State, including its Southwest Region.

Then, on June 10-11, it’s Washington’s turn to host the free fishing.

What to fish for in the Evergreen State? WDFW suggests coastal lings, spinyrays throughout the state and Columbia River shad, among other opportunities, and for even more, check out the June Weekender.

Just remember, even though the fishin’s free, all the usual bag limits and regulations apply.


IDFG Says Chinook Seasons Could Reopen After Count Picks Up


Migration conditions in the lower Columbia River and a late run have challenged Fish and Game’s normal process for setting Chinook salmon seasons. Fisheries managers closed the spring/summer Chinook season as a precaution on May 24 on all rivers, except Hells Canyon, due to low numbers of Chinook counted at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. It’s the first dam the fish cross, and the first opportunity managers to count fish destined for Idaho, and since then, Chinook returns have improved.


On Friday, June 2, the Fish and Game Commission will meet via conference call to consider a proposal to reopen fishing for spring Chinook salmon on the Little Salmon River, and to open summer Chinook salmon seasons on the Clearwater, South Fork Salmon and upper Salmon River.

The run is much later than usual, and possibly the latest on record. Anadromous Fishery Manager Lance Hebdon said it’s still too early to say for certain where fisheries will occur, or how long they might last.

“The good news is we’re now fairly confident that we’ll have some sort of a fishery in the Little Salmon River, but that’s all we can really say at this point. We’ll provide as much fishing opportunity as we can, and we’ll get the word out as soon as a decision is made.”

Although fishery managers expect to have sufficient returns to allow a harvest of several hundred spring Chinook, they expect the lower run size will limit the duration of the season.

“We’re evaluating fish passage information on a daily basis right now to determine if, when and where we have the opportunity for harvest,” Hebdon said.

Low numbers of wild Chinook may further constrain some fisheries. The number of wild Chinook destined for Idaho waters that have crossed Bonneville Dam is much lower than average. If those numbers don’t increase, fishing may be limited to areas where anglers are unlikely to hook wild Chinook, such as the Little Salmon River. Areas typically open to fishing, like the main Salmon between Rice Creek and Vinegar Creek may remain closed.