Offering limited numbers of hunting permits for specific areas is a bittersweet formula for managing Idaho elk herds.
“Controlled hunting areas tend to offer the best chances for tagging a big bull,” said Lon Kuk, Idaho Fish and Game Department big-game manager. “Unfortunately, the demand always exceeds the supply of elk in the best units. That means everybody can’t hunt.”
Controlled hunts limit the number of hunters in areas that cannot take a lot of pressure. The management option is controversial in the West, where most hunters can still remember the era of hunting anywhere one chose to go.
Both Idaho and Washington are expanding their controlled-hunting areas as game managers look for answers in a western landscape where there are more roads than there were twenty-five years ago, and far more hunters than elk.
“If terrain or private property make access difficult, you don’t need to limit the number of permits you allow,” Kuk said. “But if the access is easy, the hunting pressure will be high. It doesn’t take long in that case for the number of bulls to drop to unacceptable levels.”
In Idaho’s Salmon region, for example, Unit 29 includes 712 square miles of spectacular mountain scenery. The unit holds a ratio of fifty bulls to 100 cows, compared with a ratio of 20:100 outside the controlled unit. “And 20:100 is still pretty respectable,” said Mike Scott, regional wildlife manager in Salmon.
Elk hunter success rates in Idaho’s Unit 29 run 50-60 percent compared with 10-25 percent success in adjacent units open to any hunter with an elk tag.
But perhaps the greatest appeal to getting a tag in Unit 29 is the quality of the hunt.
“We offer 150 permits in Unit 29,” Scott said. “If we opened it to general hunting, there’d be a thousand hunters in there on the opening week.”
Adding to the quality for most hunters is the likelihood of tagging a trophy bull. About half of the elk bagged in Unit 29 are bulls with six or more points. In nearby general hunt units, about 20 percent of the bulls killed are mature bulls.
The most obvious disadvantage of a controlled hunt for Unit 29 is the nine-to-one odds of getting a tag. Last year, 1,224 hunters applied for the 150 permits.
The deal is sweet for those who beat the odds.
“As hunter densities go down, success rates go up,” said Randy Smith, biologist in Jerome, Ida. “It’s not a foot race to beat the competition to the elk each morning. And because there are road systems in most of these controlled hunt areas, it’s not a three-day horsepack to get to the hunting.”
Wildlife managers generally are conservative in giving bull tags for limited access elk tags, Kuk said. “Consequently,” he added, “a larger percentage of bulls have a chance to grow older. That gives a pretty good probability of locating a mature bull.
“If you could draw a permit every year, controlled hunts would be a perfect scenario.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Controlled hunt unit profiles Following are some of the attributes of prime controlled hunting units in the Clearwater Region. Unit 11 Location: From mouth of Clearwater River at Lewiston south to mouth of Salmon River. Unit runs east to Graves Creek Road. Description: Mostly open terrain overlooking Snake and Salmon Rivers. Hillsides steep, with grasslands, pockets of timber and brushy creeks plunging to rivers below. Access: Some roads, but most roads closed to motor vehicles. Access mostly by foot, mountain bike and horse, some by river. Land ownership: 44 percent private, 31 percent tribal, 25 percent federal or state, including Craig Mountain Recreation Area. Elk status: Winter surveys estimate 600 elk on 756 square miles. Ratio of 19 bulls per 100 cows. Hunting: By controlled access only; 50 bull permits, 50 cow permits. 1995 hunter success rate, 52 percent. Unit 18 Location: A wedge near Riggins, Idaho, bordered by the Snake River on the west and the Salmon river on the east. Description: Steep slopes of Hells Canyon country. South and west slopes dominated by bunchgrass, north slopes generally pine stringers. Lower areas open and rocky. Access: More road access on east side, mostly roadless on west side, where most bulls hang out. Horse, foot, some hunters use jet boats. Few roads. Land ownership: 80 percent federal (31 percent federal wilderness), 18 percent private, 2 percent state. Elk status: Winter surveys found 591 elk on 282 square miles. Ratio of 50 bulls per 100 cows. Hunting: By controlled access, 250 either-sex permits. 1995 success rate, 29 percent.