NEAR ST. MARIES – Calob Wilson sat on the tailgate of his dad’s pickup, dandling a rack of antlers on his knees.
It was the opening weekend of rifle season, and the 13-year-old had just shot his first elk, a five-point bull.
For more than 40 years, members of the Wilson family have hunted in Idaho’s Upper St. Joe River drainage. The St. Maries family has stuck with its traditional hunting grounds, even after wolves moved in.
Filling the freezer with elk meat requires more effort, said Calob’s dad, Chris Wilson, who spends more time tracking game. Wary bulls bugle less when wolves are around, and the elk are more scattered and secretive.
“You have to hunt harder now,” Chris Wilson said. “The elk are there, but you have to go find them.”
Eighty-thousand hunters try to bag an elk in Idaho each year, spending more than $70 million on the pursuit. Few are happy to have wolves as competition.
Wolves are partly responsible for altering the hunting experience in historically popular areas, such as the Upper St. Joe. The changes have affected Idaho’s reputation for elk hunting and subsequent revenue from tag sales.
The Upper St. Joe drainage, encompassing rugged country near the Idaho-Montana border, used to be one of the state’s premier elk hunts. In the early 1990s, more than 1,500 hunters purchased elk tags for the Upper St. Joe. Thirty-five percent of them killed an elk.
In recent years, hunter numbers in the Upper St. Joe have dropped by 60 percent. Of those who remain, only about 9 percent take an elk.
Wolves aren’t the only factor in lower hunter success rates, Idaho Fish and Wildlife managers said. Several harsh winters thinned elk numbers, and predation from black bears, cougars and wolves have kept populations from recovering. In addition, reforestation of open meadows has changed the habitat, reducing forage for elk and deer.
But in the St. Joe and elsewhere, wolves often get all the blame – at least in public perception. Elk are Idaho’s flagship game – the coveted trophy mount for the wall and the preferred meat for the freezer. They’re also the favored prey for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies.
Shortly after wolves were introduced to central Idaho in the mid-1990s, Idaho’s elk population peaked at 125,000. Today, the state’s elk population is stable at about 107,000 animals, though elk are definitely scarcer in some areas, said Jon Rachael, the state’s game manager.
Unfortunately, the decline occurred in Idaho’s central core, “in what were historically our most popular and productive elk hunting areas,” Rachael said.
For decades, the St. Joe, Clearwater River and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River epitomized the romanticism of backcountry hunts in Idaho, Rachael said. Elk flourished in the aftermath of large fires in the early 1900s that opened up forested areas, creating ideal habitat. Predators were actively suppressed, and some herds were augmented with elk shipped in by rail from Yellowstone National Park.
But with changing conditions that include wolves, elk numbers are down by 50 percent in some of those hunting areas, Rachael said. The corresponding drop in hunters is a revenue concern for the state.
Those areas attracted high numbers of out-of-state hunters, who pay more than $400 for a nonresident elk tag. Since 2008, revenue from those tag sales has slid by $1.8 million.
“This is one of the painful stories, though it’s not all the result of wolf predation,” Rachael said.
Inga and Joe Cabral operate Russell Pond & B Bar C Outfitters in St. Maries. The decline in hunters has cut into their business.
The Cabrals used to book up to 36 elk hunters for weeklong, guided rifle hunts in the Clearwater, and took another 20 elk hunters to the St. Joe. The backcountry hunts were so popular that they sold out months in advance, Inga Cabral said.
This fall, only six rifle hunters signed up for the Cabrals’ Clearwater trips, and there was none for the St. Joe.
“I’m not a wolf basher,” said Inga Cabral, who attributes part of the business decline to lingering effects from the recession. Many of her clients come from the East Coast, California and the South, and fewer have the discretionary income for a $4,200 guided elk hunt.
But the public perception that wolves have decimated Idaho’s elk herds also hurts business, Cabral said. Remarks she hears at trade shows indicate that “Idaho’s reputation for elk hunting has tanked,” she said.
She’s spending more on advertising to attract hunters, and she’d like to see the state increase its marketing efforts as well. Idaho Fish and Game hasn’t sold out of nonresident elk tags since 2008, a trend that disturbs Cabral.
“Experienced hunters love less hunters in the woods, but everyone with an eye to the future understands this isn’t a good thing in the long run,” she said.
Wolves are one of the reasons Montana stepped up its marketing efforts to hunters, said Ron Aasheim, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman. With all the national publicity about wolves, the message that 70 percent of Montana’s hunting areas were at or above goals for elk numbers was getting lost, he said.
The state spent $80,000 on marketing efforts last year, including ads promoting Montana during Google searches for hunting. State officials also attended four hunting shows and advertised nationally and regionally in radio, hunting magazines and newspapers, including The Spokesman-Review.
Idaho spent about $40,000 on similar efforts, and the publicity seems to be helping, said Mike Keckler, Idaho Fish and Game’s communication chief. Nonresident sales of deer tags are up about 13 percent this year, and nonresident elk tag sales are up 4 percent.
But Idaho is competing with states such as Colorado, which spends about $500,000 on marketing to attract out-of-state hunters, Keckler said.
Wolves, meanwhile, are affecting hunters’ behavior as well as elk behavior, wildlife managers said.
In North Idaho, “there’s been a tremendous shift in hunters from the Upper St. Joe to the Coeur d’Alene” river drainage, said Jim Hayden, Fish and Game’s regional wildlife manager. The change is significant because place matters to hunters.
“Culture and tradition are a big part of things for hunters,” Hayden said. “Going to an area where your dad hunted, your grandfather hunted and where you learned how to hunt holds special memories.”
The Wilsons understand that kind of loyalty. Chris Wilson learned how to hunt in the Upper St. Joe with his dad, and now his son has marked a rite of passage by taking an elk there. Three generations of Wilsons will be back in the St. Joe again in December for a late archery hunt.
Hunting strengthens the family’s bonds, said Bob Wilson, Chris Wilson’s father.
“It’s a way to stay together, to do things together,” he said. “We all get to share in the fun, and we get to share the meat.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter