Idaho elk hunting may have bottomed out in 2009, followed by better times for hunters that ought to continue this season.
Elk harvest had declined for four years but went from 15,800 tagged elk in 2009 up to 17,792 in 2010.
Idaho Fish and Game Department officials attribute the increase to favorable weather last hunting season that brought snow to some areas and drove elk out of the high country, or just made them easier to hunt.
The increased harvest in 2010 is more notable considering Fish and Game sold 7,800 fewer elk tags in 2010 than it did in 2008 and 2,256 fewer than it did in 2009.
In other words, fewer hunters killed more elk last year, driving the statewide success rate up to 23 percent.
State biologists expect this fall’s harvest to be similar to 2010.
Elk are not as prone to winter kill as deer, so elk herds tend to be more stable.
Despite that, elk herds are facing different sets of challenges, including declining habitat, predators, and low cow productivity and calf survival.
Hunters also have faced challenges when elk herds dwindled in traditional strongholds, while herds elsewhere have maintained populations or increased.
“We have good elk populations and fully functioning herds in two-thirds of our zones,” said Virgil Moore, IFG director.
“That doesn’t diminish the fact there are large portions of the central part of the state where elk populations are down.”
IFG surveys show 12 elk zones are meeting cow population objectives, 11 are over objectives and six are under.
The state of bulls is similar, with seven zones meeting bull objectives, 13 over objectives and nine below objectives.
Wolf factor: But nowhere in big game hunting is there a wider gap between what biologists see during winter helicopter flights to count herds and what hunters see during the fall hunting season.
Despite the discrepancy, hunters and biologists agree elk have changed their habits because of wolves.
“They don’t just stand around on open hillsides like they used to,” Moore said.
Elk hunted by wolves tend to favor timbered areas where they are harder to spot, and bulls are less vocal during the September rut, making them harder to locate.
In turn, hunters are adapting to different elk behavior and becoming more effective at hunting them.
There’s also been a migration of elk hunters out of traditional elk hunting areas where herds have declined and into areas with healthier elk herds.
It often takes hunters a couple of seasons to learn a new area and figure out how to hunt it successfully.
Many elk hunters are celebrating the return of wolf hunting as a way to relieve some predation on elk, but Fish and Game officials caution hunters to temper their expectations.
“The reality is wildlife populations tend to respond relatively slowly,” state wildlife manager Brad Compton said. “The first thing you want to do is reverse the trend, and that’s going to take a couple years, at least.”
But Compton thinks elk herds can rebound, and the harvest could return to the heyday of the mid 1990s.
“I would like to see us back in that 20,000 range,” he said.