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Meetings set to explain Idaho hunting season options

A bull elk trips the motion-activated shutter of a trail cam set up in Stevens County by Kevin Scheib of Colville. (Kevin Scheib)
A bull elk trips the motion-activated shutter of a trail cam set up in Stevens County by Kevin Scheib of Colville. (Kevin Scheib)

HUNTING -- With concern for elk herds still high on the list of issues, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has scheduled four public meetings in the Idaho Panhandle to discuss 2012 big-game hunting seasons for deer, bear, lion, wolves and elk.

In some cases, the wildlife managers will be recommending more liberal hunting for bears, cougars and wolves and more restrictive hunting for elk to help bring back herds.

Morning meetings:
  • Saturday, March 3, in Pinehurst,  7 a.m. at the Lions Club, 106 Church St.
  • Saturday, March 3, in St. Maries, 8 a.m., at the Elks Lodge, 628 Main St.
(Coffee will be provided free, and breakfast will be available for those who want to purchase it.)
Evening meetings
  • Thursday, March 8, in Sandpoint, 7 p.m., at the Bonner County Fairgrounds, Lehman Building.
  • Friday, March 9, in Coeur d’Alene, 7 p.m., at the Coeur d’Alene Resort.
In addition to the four local public meetings, the public will soon be able to view proposals and post comments on the IDFG website.
Read on for insights in the big-game situation by Jim Hayden, IDFG Panhandle Region wildlife manager.

 Our situation with elk is tenuous and we need the most current data possible before decisions can be made.  Because we’re still right smack in the middle of gathering our mid-winter data, we have dang little time between the time we collect the data, analyze it, figure out the best course of action, and get all that out for everyone to consider.

We spend a lot of money managing elk, but that really only goes so far.  There’s a lot that has to be pieced together from more general information, talking with people, and looking for patterns.  The past several years you’ve heard quite a bit about changing patterns in calf ratios, and what that implied for management.
Calf recruitment doesn’t mean everything, but this statistic is often an indicator of whether a population is robust or hurting.  Problems often show up in low calf ratios, although the reason it’s low isn’t often entirely clear. 
During early-starting, severe winters for example, we often see low calf ratios due to nutritional stress.   That nutritional stress can be from poor summer/fall forage (for example with a lack of fall green-up due to lack of fall rains), early concentration on key winter ranges (say if snows come particularly early), lack of forage quality (for example with decadent brush fields), or simply unusually severe winter weather sapping energy via very cold temperatures and high energetic demands of moving through unusually deep snows.
Low calf ratios can also be due to heavy predation during summer (often with bears as a predator), or late fall/winter (often with wolves as a predator).  Severe winter weather concentrates elk, and problems come from both nutritional stress and increased predation from a highly concentrated elk prey base.
High calf ratios therefore usually (not always) signify an elk population that is doing well, and low calf elk ratios usually signify an elk population that is doing poorly.  Sometimes the cause may not be clear for low calf ratios, but the immediate health of the elk herd usually is clear.
We monitor calf recruitment several ways. 
The most obvious is our aerial surveys, which are currently underway here in the Panhandle.  We don’t really need to know how many calves exist in a herd, but we do need to know the ratio of calves to cows.  Generally, we’ll talk about the number of calves per 100 cows so we can deal with numbers rather than percentages or fractions.
We can’t fly in all units every year though, but we’re still able to track general patterns by looking at the harvest data.  The male calves in one year are the yearlings (usually spikes) the following fall, so we monitor the percentage of yearling bulls in the harvest reports.  We don’t get that type of information of course until after the hunting season, which is about now.  It’s a year old, but at least it covers all the units well.
Our most recent flight data for calf ratios, although incomplete, gives us some indications.
Calf recruitment has changed a lot in just the last 4 years.  In (February) 2008, we had high calf ratios across the board despite a severe winter.  We saw a substantial decrease in the percentage of spike bulls in fall 2009, indicating poor survival after those February 2008 flights.  Since then, we’ve seen ups and downs, but no return to the high levels we had 2003 – 2008.  We really need to be above 30 calves per 100 cows to offer an either sex hunting season on a sustained basis.  With the exception of the St. Joe, it looked like we were starting to head again in that direction last year.
Data from Units 6 and 7 are complete and calf ratios remain poor.  Our counts indicate this elk herd has declined by about 60% in just the last 3 years, and projections indicate another 15% decline in yearling and older elk by next year.  We’ve cut back on elk seasons, going to bull only in Unit 7 (and 9) last year.  Proposals for 2012 will include more liberal seasons for bears, lions, and wolves, and more restrictive seasons for elk.  We may have a bitter pill to swallow to rebuild these elk herds.
We’ve done some flying in the central and eastern portions of Unit 4 as well, and with only 16 calves per 100 cows, half of what we need to sustain a cow elk harvest without pushing the elk herd down.  Modeling suggest that this part of Unit 4 may have suffered as much as a 30% decline over the past 3 years, with further declines in at least yearling and older elk  projected for next fall.  Silver Valley elk ranges usually fare better, having higher calf ratios.  We hope to fly Silver Valley early next week.
Sample sizes in Unit 1 (NE of Sandpoint) and 3 (Silver Valley) are too low to give us a definitive answer, but early indications are that these units may be in better shape.  Unit 4 is key, however, and that will be our priority if flying time is limited.
Fixes in one area can produce problems for other areas, the domino effect and that’s a very important consideration as we all know.  It’ll probably be another couple days before our 2012 season recommendations are hammered out, but substantial changes are likely – more pressure on bears, lions, and wolves to reduce predation, and much more restrictive elk seasons to increase survival.

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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