Rich Gerhard filled his freezer with 280 pounds of elk meat this fall. The kill took place within an hour’s drive of his home.
One morning last month, Gerhard got up before daybreak to head to a favorite hunting spot in the mountains east of Coeur d’Alene. By 8 a.m., he’d shot a 5-point bull elk.
“That’s one of the blessings of living here,” said Gerhard, 58, a veteran hunter and Coeur d’Alene resident. “The national forest starts just east of town.”
Others apparently feel the same way. Since the late 1970s, the number of elk tags sold in the Idaho Panhandle has grown about 27 percent.
“People have been asking me, do we have fewer hunters in the woods?” said Jim Hayden, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s regional wildlife manager in Coeur d’Alene. That’s the trend nationally, but local numbers tell a different story, Hayden said.
Nearly 18,000 elk tags were sold in the Idaho Panhandle this year. Based on previous years’ success rates, an estimated 1,250 to 2,800 of those hunters will take home an elk for the freezer.
Hayden credits expansions in the local elk herd for the growth in North Idaho’s tag sales.
“We have elk in places that we didn’t have them before,” he said. “Twenty-five years ago, you pretty much had to travel to get an elk. Now, you can make it a day trip.”
Hayden didn’t have exact population figures, but said that elk herds have expanded to the east and south of Coeur d’Alene. They’re also increasing north of the Pend Oreille River. Those are “non-traditional” areas for elk, at least in the past 100 years, Hayden said.
However, “it’s a mixed message,” Hayden said. “We do have places in the Idaho Panhandle where wolves are having a serious impact on elk herds.”
Wolves have taken the most elk in the rugged terrain along the upper St. Joe River, where packs have been documented since 1998. But in other areas of North Idaho, where wolf packs are less established, elk herds are growing, Hayden said.
Gerhard, the Coeur d’Alene hunter, also points to North Idaho’s rapid population growth as a factor in strong sales of elk tags. Kootenai County’s population has doubled during the past two decades. Many of the new residents moving here are interested in outdoor recreation, including hunting opportunities, Gerhard said.
“We have a good chance of getting a bull elk and an antlered elk, which is rare for the U.S. as a whole,” he said.
Gerhard also suspects that the sluggish economy has given elk tag sales a boost in the Idaho Panhandle in recent years. Instead of hunting in Montana and Wyoming, which requires paying for higher cost, out-of-state licenses and tags, some local hunters are probably sticking closer to home, he said.
In Washington, wildlife officials see similar trends in elk tag sales. Over the past nine years, the number of elk hunters in Northeast Washington’s Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties rose nearly 50 percent.
Widespread logging over the past 30 years created more elk habitat, which has led to growth in the herds and attracted more hunters, said Dana Base, district wildlife biologist in Colville for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
However, “northeast Washington is still a difficult place to hunt or find elk,” he said. “We have elk in the hundreds as opposed to the thousands.”
Hunter success rates are much lower than in the Idaho Panhandle. Last year, about 4,800 sportsmen and -women hunted for elk in northeast Washington. They took a total of 276 animals.
Successful hunters typically spend lots of time in the woods, tracking elk year-round, Base said.
“They’ll find a little group of elk and baby-sit them all year,” he said.
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