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$70 Million From Federal Fish, Wildlife Restoration Program Coming To Northwest DFWs

Northwest fish and wildlife managers will receive nearly $70 million for fish and wildlife this year, thanks to the annual disbursement of funds from two key federal programs.

Oregon is set to receive the most, $25,510,834, through the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts which help restore game and sportfish through excise taxes on certain hunting, angling and boating purchases.


Washington will see $22,232,988 and Idaho $21,904,604.

The figures were announced yesterday by Ryan Zinke, Secretary of Interior.

“Every time a firearm, fishing pole, hook, bullet, motor boat or boat fuel is sold, part of that cost goes to fund conservation,” Zinke said in a press release. “The best way to increase funding for conservation and sportsmen access is to increase the number of hunters and anglers in our woods and waters. The American conservation model has been replicated all over the world because it works.”

The feds use a formula based on how many fishing and hunting licenses that ODFW, WDFW, IDFG and other agencies sell, as well as land size to disburse the funding.

Texas received the most this year, at $54 million, following by Alaska at $51 million and California at $42 million. 

According to the Department of Interior, since Pittman-Robertson went into effect in 1938 and Dingell-Johnson in 1950, a grand total of $20.2 billion has been sent back to the states.

“In discussions with hunters/anglers, we often mention that their license fees, leveraged with PR and DJ, account for about one-third of WDFW’s operating budget – a significant contribution,” WDFW Policy Director Nate Pamplin told me for a blog I posted here earlier this year on how much of your license revenue actually goes back to the agency.

Zinke made the announcement in Wisconsin, which was also the backdrop of a Tuesday NPR story on declining numbers of hunters, a warning about the impending “demographic wall” as baby boomers age out of the sport and attempts to get other outdoor enthusiasts and the public to pay a fairer share.

A bill in Congress would help fund managing the increasing numbers of endangered species across the country. Introduced in the House of Representatives last December, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act picked up more than two dozen cosponsors from both sides of the aisle earlier this month.

For more on the acts, the umbrella Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program and the 29 key words written in 1937 and which that require your fishing and hunting license money to go straight to the DFWs and not state general fund coffers, see this handy-dandy presentation.

2017 Idaho Elk, Whitetail Harvest Up, Mule Deer Down, Hunt Managers Report


Hunters took more elk and white-tailed deer in 2017 than in 2016, but mule deer harvest was down. With a much milder winter so far, Fish and Game biologists expect the drop in mule deer harvest to be short lived as herds recover from last year’s difficult winter across Central and Southern Idaho.

The 2017 elk harvest was about 17.5 percent above the 10-year average, and despite the dip in the mule deer harvest, 2017’s overall deer harvest was still slightly above the 10-year average.


Elk harvest

Elk hunters are enjoying some of the best hunting in recent history. Harvest was up by 1,242 elk in 2017 over 2016, which was largely an increase in cow harvest. The bull harvest dropped 341 animals between 2016 and 2017.

Fish and Game increased cow hunting opportunities to reduce herds that are causing damage to private lands in parts of the state.

Idaho’s elk harvest has exceeded 20,000 elk for four straight years, which hasn’t happened since the mid 1990s.

Idaho’s elk herds have grown in recent years thanks in part to mild winters, but elk don’t typically suffer the same fate as mule deer when winter turns colder and snowier.

“Elk are much hardier animals and less susceptible to environmental conditions,” Fish and Game Deer and Elk Coordinator Daryl Meints said. “It has to be a tough winter to kill elk.”


Deer harvest

The 2017 deer harvest dropped by 11,426 animals compared with 2016, which included a slight increase in white-tailed deer harvested, but 11,574 fewer mule deer harvested.

In response to last year’s hard winter, Fish and Game’s wildlife managers reduced antlerless hunting opportunities for mule deer in 2017 to protect breeding-age does and help the population bounce back more quickly. That resulted in 2,517 fewer antlerless mule deer harvested.

Fish and Game’s mule deer monitoring last winter showed only 30 percent survival for fawns, which was the second-lowest since winter monitoring started 20 years ago. Those male fawns would have been two-points or spikes in the fall had they survived, which typically account for a large portion of the mule deer buck harvest. Harvest statistics showed hunters took 3,709 fewer two points or spikes in 2017 than in 2016.

Mule deer tend to run on a “boom and bust” cycle, and “every few years, you’re going to have a winter when this happens,” Meints said.

However, it tends to be fairly short-lived unless there are consecutive winters with prolonged deep snow and/or frigid temperatures. While mule deer hunting was down, whitetail hunting remains solid and stable, and hunters took more whitetails than mule deer last fall, which is rare for Idaho.


The whitetail harvest in 2016 and 2017 hovering just below the all-time harvest record of 30,578 set in 2015.

Northern Idaho had an average winter last year, and whitetails in the Panhandle and Clearwater continue to thrive after a series of mild-to-average winters there.

“We don’t have as much telemetry-collar data like we do with mule deer, but there’s no reason to believe we haven’t had higher-than-normal survival of whitetail fawns and adults, and the harvest data supports that,” Meints said.

Looking ahead

While last winter’s above-average snowpack in Southern and Central Idaho took its toll on fawns, it also provided a lot of moisture that grew lots of food for big game animals. Many animals went into winter in great condition, and so far, weather has been mild compared to last year.

A mild, or average, winter typically grows herds because a larger proportion of the fawns and calves survive, which is a critical time for their passage into adulthood.

Even during the difficult winter last year, more than 90 percent of the radio-collared mule deer does, and more than 95 percent of the radio-collared cow elk survived.

Idaho Fishing, Hunting License Sales To Pause During Switch To New Online Vendor


Fish and Game’s licensing system will temporarily shut down at 11 p.m. (Mountain Time), Feb. 28, and the plan is to resume selling licenses with the new system around noon on March 1.


During this period, no licenses, tags or permits will be issued. The rollout of the new license-sales system coincides with the March 1 deadline for turkey controlled hunt applications, so hunters are encouraged to apply before the deadline.

This is Fish and Game’s first change in its license-sales contractor since 2007. F&G sells approximately 1.9 million licenses, tags and controlled hunt applications annually, all of which is done through its contracted licensing system.

Fish and Game has contracted with JMT to operate its new licensing system and conduct controlled hunt drawings. The contract includes providing sales terminals at all Fish and Game regional offices, private businesses that sell licenses around the state, and also the internet sales website. JMT currently serves other fish and wildlife agencies in Washington, West Virginia and Maryland.

“We’ve trained our staff and vendors on the new terminals and issuance process, but it may take a little while before everyone becomes familiar with the new system. We appreciate everyone’s patience during the transition,” said Michael Pearson, Fish and Game Administration Bureau Chief.

IDFG Upping 2018 Trout Stocking Game With More, Bigger ‘Bows


Do anglers prefer more trout or larger trout? Idaho Fish and Game is answering that question by providing both in 2018 and beyond.

Fish and Game will stock more rainbow trout throughout the state than in recent years thanks to the 2017 license and tag fee increase, and many trout will be bigger.


“Our hatchery managers were proactive and ordered more eggs last summer because they wanted to get more trout in the pipeline for this spring,” said Gary Byrne, Fish and Game’s fish production manager.

Stocking plans for 2018 call for about 123,000 more “catchable” rainbow trout (8 to 11 inches) and 41,000 more 12 to 14-inch trout commonly known as “magnums.” Then in 2019, anglers will get 56,000 more catchables and 180,000 more larger trout compared to 2017 numbers. The 2019 stocking plan will provide the basis for subsequent future years.

The challenge of growing larger “magnum” trout is it takes more food and more time, so it will require extra months to get those larger trout ready to stock, but “a higher proportion of them are going to end up on angler’s hook,” Byrne said.

Fish and Game’s research has shown trout in the 12-inch range can be more cost-effective in some waters if you factor that they’re caught at a higher frequency than the smaller fish. So basically, anglers catch more of those trout, and they’re bigger.

Not only that, in Idaho’s productive lakes and reservoirs, those 12-inch fish will continue to grow after being stocked, and growth rates of an inch per month are common during the prime growing months, which means there will be more trophy-sized trout swimming in Idaho.

“In bodies of water where they can carry over through winter, we should see lots of bigger fish,” Byrne said.

That doesn’t mean all trout stocked will be the larger fish. Depending on the body of water, smaller “catchables” can also be caught at high rates, such as in community ponds, or other waters with high fishing pressure that leads to most of the fish getting caught. Fish and Game stocks trout so anglers can catch them. The fish are sterile, so incapable of reproducing.

Fish and Game stocks trout year round in some waters at low elevations with mild climates, then stocking starts ramping up throughout the state in the spring, which is followed by major stockings prior to peak angling times, such as spring and summer holidays. You can see where stockings take place on Fish and Game’s stocking report page.

Fisheries managers also stock a variety of fish beyond rainbow trout. For example, many of the kokanee salmon caught by anglers in large lakes and reservoirs are stocked as fingerlings. Same goes for high mountain lakes, which typically get an influx of fingerlings on a rotating basis every few years. Those stocking numbers will remain consistent.

Managers also occasionally stock brown trout, westslope cutthroat trout, Lahontan cutthroat, tiger trout (a brown/brook hybrid), and rainbow-cutthroat hybrids in waters around the state, but in much smaller quantities than rainbow trout.

IDFG Looking For Info On Goose Wastage Cases Near Boise


Fish and Game is asking the public for information regarding two recent cases of wanton waste associated with the dumping of multiple Canada goose, mallard and goldeneye carcasses near Kuna Butte, southwest of Kuna.


Citizens Against Poaching (CAP) is offering a reward for information in the case and callers can remain anonymous. Contact CAP at 1-800-632-5999 twenty four hours a day.

Responding to a call on January 19th, Fish and Game conservation officer Brian Flatter found nine Canada geese, and two duck carcasses left to waste along Swan Falls Road south of Kuna. On February 5th, fellow conservation officer Brian Jack responded to a second call and found 31 Canada goose carcasses dumped in the same area.

No meat from any of the birds had been taken. Idaho code requires that the breast meat be removed before disposing of a harvested waterfowl carcass.

Evidence was collected at the scene, but the officers would like to speak with anyone who might have information about the wanton waste case. “I’m hopeful someone will make a call and provide information to move this case forward,” Jack said.

In addition to the CAP hotline, persons with information regarding this case may also contact the Fish and Game Nampa office at 208-465-8465 weekdays, Idaho State Police at 208-846-7550 on weekends or the Ada County Sheriff’s Office anytime at 208-377-6790.

Status Quo Management For Priest Lake Fish, IDFG Decides


Fish and Game will continue managing Priest Lake as primarily a lake trout fishery while also protecting native cutthroat trout and bull trout in Upper Priest Lake.

Over the past several years, F&G fisheries managers have done extensive public outreach to see if a management change was warranted at Priest Lake, but found there was not clear public sentiment that favored it.


“Simply put, fishing opportunity in the foreseeable future is likely to be about the same as it has been in recent years,” regional fish manager Andy Dux said. “Lake trout will continue to be abundant, kokanee will persist at low densities, but large in size. Cutthroat trout will also be present in moderate densities, and smallmouth bass will remain abundant.”

Fish and Game, with help from the Priest Lake Fishery Advisory Commitee, presented anglers and the public with three management choices: status quo, reducing lake trout populations to boost the kokanee fishery and other game fish species, or slightly reducing the lake trout population in an attempt to get a corresponding increase in other species.

Fish and Game did several surveys and multiple open houses to gauge public interest in changing management for the lake.

  • The random mail survey of anglers showed 52 percent did not want change vs. 48 percent who wanted change.
  • An email survey of anglers showed 45 percent did not want change and 55 percent did want change.

Resident anglers who frequently fish Priest Lake showed the most support for maintaining the existing fishery. Anglers who used to fish Priest Lake, but don’t now, were most likely to support change. In general, resident and nonresident anglers had similar opinions, and so did anglers from all the counties surveyed.

“We were clear from the start that unquestionable support for change was necessary in order for a drastic shift in management to be publicly accepted and successful,” Dux said.

Changing the management of the Priest Lake would require substantial time and resources from the department and patience from the public. Without a clear mandate for change, fisheries managers decided it was best to continue with the current management.

“We had tremendous participation from the public during this process, which gives us confidence that we understand public desires for the Priest Lake fishery,” Dux said. “The Priest Lake fishery is a public resource, so periodically it is important to ask the public how they want to see it managed. We learned there isn’t quite enough support to justify major change, but we didn’t have a good read on that until we asked the question.”

Priest Lake’s fisheries have steadily changed over time. The 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 were also an important food source for bull trout and lake trout, which attained trophy sizes. That balance between predators and prey fish lasted into the 1970s, then fell apart. Mysis, a small freshwater shrimp, was introduced in the late-1960s to provide more food for kokanee. Unfortunately, young lake trout feed on shrimp until the fish switch their diet to kokanee.

Mysis allowed the lake trout population to grow at the expense of kokanee, which also happened to a lesser extent as lake trout preyed on, or outcompeted, cutthroat and bull trout.

Fish and Game has curbed lake trout population growth in Upper Priest Lake to relieve pressure on those native fish.

Fisheries managers have in the past attempted to boost kokanee numbers by stocking more, but those efforts were thwarted by lake trout predation. Millions of kokanee fry, as well as hundreds of thousands of juvenile cutthroat, were stocked without a noticeable increase in the populations of either species.

While fishing at Priest Lake is different than decades ago, it’s still an attractive place for anglers who enjoy catching lake trout.

“Plenty of fishing opportunities lie ahead for Priest Lake anglers,” Dux said. “Anglers looking for unique fishing opportunities in a scenic location will find them at Priest Lake.”


IDFG Looking For Tips In Poaching Of Big Buck East Of Boise Last Weekend


Fish and Game is asking the public for information regarding the recent poaching of a large mule deer buck. The poaching incident likely occurred during the weekend of January 6th.


Citizens Against Poaching (CAP) is offering a reward for information in the case and callers can remain anonymous. Contact CAP at 1-800-632-5999 twenty four hours a day.

Responding to the initial report, Fish and Game conservation officer Ben Cadwallader found the carcass of a large buck mule deer just one-half mile east of Arrowrock Dam off of the Middle Fork Boise River Road. “Based on the condition of the carcass, the deer was likely shot either this past Friday or Saturday,” Cadwallader said. The deer hunting season closed more than two months ago in this area.

Evidence was collected at the scene, but Cadwallader hopes to learn more about the case from an eyewitness or others who have knowledge of the poaching incident. “I am very interested in visiting with anyone who has information regarding this poached deer,” Cadwallader noted.

In addition to the CAP hotline, persons with information regarding this case may also contact the Fish and Game Nampa office at 208-465-8465 weekdays and Idaho State Police at 208-846-7550 on weekends.


Plenty Of Porky Perch At Idaho’s Cascade, Though Fewer Smaller Ones


Lots of large perch remain, but fewer smaller sizes could affect the fishery in the future

Since 2012, Fish and Game fisheries staff in McCall has annually conducted fall fishery surveys on Lake Cascade. We sample all fish populations in the lake, which helps manage all game fish in the reservoir.

So what did we find in our 2017 survey?

Lots of big perch

The perch population looks healthy. All ages of fish are present in the lake, and there’s still a large number of perch over 12 inches. Of all the perch we caught in nets 59 percent were over 12 inches.


We have seen a decline in perch less than 11 inches in both 2016 and 2017 surveys. This is a result of predation on small perch by the large numbers of big perch and also pikeminnow, smallmouth bass, rainbow trout and birds. If this trend continues, it will mean fewer jumbo perch in the future.

One of the primary food items for perch are juvenile perch and large numbers of big perch can have a huge effect on juvenile perch numbers as most get eaten. The good news is that as the large group of big perch decline, it allows for large numbers of small perch to survive and become the next generation of jumbos. Perch grow 1.5 to 2 inches a year, thus 12-inch fish are six to seven years old and 14 inch and larger perch are eight to 12 years old.

As a result of Fish and Game’s continued pikeminnow removal efforts their numbers have remained steady since 2012. However, in this years’ survey, the percentage of adult pikeminnow increased.  This is expected as young pikeminnow that are not killed in traps or by chemical treatment  grow in size. This illustrates the need for continued adult pikeminnow removal to protect the perch fishery.

Rainbows and smallmouths

We saw good numbers of rainbow trout in the fall 2017 survey ranging from 12 to 21 inches with most in the 12 to 17 inch range. However, we didn’t see as many rainbows over 17 inches than we have in the past.


We collected a number of 10 to 20-inch smallmouth bass with half of those larger than 16 inches. Trends in juvenile bass are unknown because our nets are not designed to collect those small fish.

Annual fish surveys are vital to managing Lake Cascade, which is the fourth-largest body of water in Idaho, contains many fish species and is a popular spot for anglers.

Managing for the future

The lake’s rainbow trout and kokanee fisheries are a direct result of annual stockings, and smallmouth bass are a self-sustaining population that we watch, but only manage with rule changes.

Yellow perch management is much more hands on and depends on the control of northern pikeminnow numbers. Therefore, of particular interest to managers is the status of the perch and pikeminnow populations.

We closely monitor perch population and fish sizes to ensure there are abundant perch over 9 inches, which cannot be eaten by pikeminnow, so they’re important for spawning and angler harvest.

Biologists also want to see good numbers of younger perch to replace the large fish as those older fish die of natural causes or angler harvest.

We closely monitor pikeminnow numbers and sizes and pikeminnow predation because it’s the biggest threat to the perch fishery.

Pikeminnow predation on perch was the primary cause of the fishery collapse in the 1990s when large numbers of adult pikeminnows ate virtually every perch under 9 inches in the lake.

Today, pikeminnow numbers are much lower than in the 1990s because since 2004, Fish and Game has removed large numbers of them using large traps and rotenone (a chemical pesticide which specifically targets fish) in the North Fork of the Payette River to remove pre-spawning adults.

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.”