In the Clearwater region of Idaho, the call of an elk rings like the sound of a cash register.
Last year, 26 percent of all Idaho’s elk hunters harvested 24 percent of the state’s total kill in the region that spreads east of Lewiston.
About 18,000 hunters spend an average of 7.5 days each to hunt here each fall. Non-residents drop about $1.8 million in gas, food, lodging, and services. Residents pump in nearly $3.1 million annually.
Overall, elk hunting in Latah, Clearwater, Nez Perce, Lewis, and Idaho counties is worth almost $5 million each season.
The five-county region encompasses 12,026 square miles, an area larger than New Hampshire, Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
Most of it is ideal habitat for white-tailed deer and elk. Despite being only 14.5 percent of the state’s land mass, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimates the Clearwater Region holds 40 percent of the state’s whitetails, almost 30 percent of its elk, and less than 10 percent of its mule deer and moose populations.
More than 47 percent of Idaho’s elk and deer guides do business in Clearwater County. Yet, less than 6 percent of all the region’s hunts were guided. In 1994, 1,408 guided elk hunters in the region were estimated to have spent an average of $2,600 each for an economic impact of more than $3.6 million.
But if you think that small percentage of guided hunters are getting all the elk, think again. They only harvested 489 elk or less than 8 percent of the statewide total.
All is not perfect in this region. Unit 12 along the Lochsa River has seen its bull elk numbers decline by 50 percent since 1985. In the same decade, the six-point bull population has dropped 85 percent. Most authorities with the IDFG agree it is the lethal combination of access and overhunting that has pushed the precipitous decline.
On the other hand, Latah County’s Units 8 and 8A saw a record harvest of almost 1,000 elk last year. The units are open only to the hunting of bulls except for cow permits and late-season depredation hunts.
The bulls-only regulations went into effect in 1976 after overhunting and normal population dynamics dropped the bottom out of the population. Since then, all accounts are that the county’s elk herds are at least stable and sustaining the annual harvest or increasing.
Elk depredation of agricultural crops continues to be a problem on the Palouse. Agricultural lands, surrounding timber, and a lowland climate create almost ideal elk habitat.
“With the exception of running in big herds, the elk in Units 8 and 8A have adapted their behavior to be almost identical to white-tailed deer,” said Clint Rand, IDFG regional conservation officer based in Moscow. They can eat in the fields and escape into the woods, he said.
Unrolling a map, he explains the hand-drawn dots on it represent kill sites in the county. North and east of Troy, the Helmer area, and the farm lands around Cavendish and Southwick show pronounced concentrations of successful hunts. Along the Palouse River and northward, few dots mark the map.
“My opinion is that the unsuccessful hunts are a product of past overharvest and easy access now,” he said. “Near Cavendish and Southwick, access is tougher, there are more elk, and the hunts are more difficult but successful.”
Map of area
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Hunters doing well in N. Idaho North Idaho hunters already are reaping the harvest of bountiful big-game herds. Elk, deer and bear numbers are high enough for good hunting. Archers, who have been hunting elk since Aug. 30, have seen lots of potential targets in game management units open to them, Idaho Fish and Game Department officials say. Some backcountry units opened Sept. 15 and preliminary checks indicate that hunters are doing well. Most North Idaho units will be opened to rifle hunters Oct. 10. Tag holders are limited to bull elk during the first five days of the season. Antlerless elk will become legal targets Oct. 15.