Hard winter blamed for devastated herds
Hunters might have fewer chances to bag an elk in the Idaho Panhandle next fall.
Wildlife managers are proposing shorter hunting seasons to allow elk herds to recover from the deep snow and frigid temperatures that led to high mortality rates last winter. Their goal is to reduce the cow elk harvest by 50 percent and the bull elk harvest by 15 percent.
That’s going to disappoint the 20,000 elk hunters who purchase tags in the region each year, acknowledged Jim Hayden, regional manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. However, “we don’t have enough elk calves to replace hunters’ take unless we change the season,” he said.
Biologists expected high rates of winterkill. But they were still surprised by the small numbers of elk calves counted during recent aerial surveys.
Wildlife managers like to see a ratio of at least 30 calves per 100 cow elk, which provides a pool of younger animals to replace the elk that are hunted or die of other causes, Hayden said. Biologists counted only 12 calves per 100 cow elk during recent wildlife survey flights.
“We’ve got an issue,” Hayden told about 40 hunters during a Monday evening meeting.
Fish and Game officials are holding meetings around the region to discuss the proposed shorter elk season and other possible changes to big game hunts. The department is also suggesting a shorter doe season during fall deer hunts. Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission will decide when it meets in Boise on March 24-25.
Many in the audience Monday wondered how wolves are affecting the Panhandle’s elk population.
The harsh winter of 2007-’08 is the primary culprit behind the low elk calf numbers, Hayden said, though wolves were also a factor.
“We’re seeing lower calf ratios in every unit,” Hayden told the crowd. “Where we don’t have wolves, we’re in trouble. Where we have wolves, we’re in more trouble.”
At least 135 wolves live in the Panhandle, according to Fish and Game estimates. Thirteen wolf packs have been identified in the region, along with one suspected pack and other wolves that aren’t part of a pack.
Wolf numbers are highest south of Interstate 90, where their presence is influencing elk behavior.
During the aerial surveys in the St. Joe River drainage, Hayden spotted elk in groups of 100 or more – a defensive tactic for the herds. A wolf was watching one of the herds from about 75 yards away. Another herd of nearly 200 elk was bunched together across the ridge from five wolves.
“We’re also hearing from hunters that the elk aren’t bugling as much,” Hayden said.
No wonder, said Jack Finney, of Coeur d’Alene. One morning at dawn, he and his brother were using a bugle to call elk in a remote drainage along the St. Joe River. A pack of wolves started howling.
The St. Joe has definitely become wolf country, said Greg Frank, of Rathdrum, who hears howling and sees wolf tracks when he hunts there.
Finney supports this year’s rollback of the elk harvest. So does Darren Vanhorn, of Coeur d’Alene.
“I’d rather take my hit now for better hunting opportunities in the future,” Vanhorn said.
But Frank thinks the wolf predation factor needs more research. “We think the wolves are having a bigger impact on elk herds than they realize,” he said.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s recent decision to remove wolves in the Northern Rockies from the endangered species list could lead to Idaho’s first public wolf hunt in decades. But if Salazar’s decision is challenged as expected, the hunt could be delayed while the courts decide the matter, Hayden said.
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