The Lolo elk population has declined from 16,000 elk in 1989 to roughly 2,100 elk in 2010, and possibly fewer than 1,000 this year, with predation and habitat changes among the chief causes of the decline. Fish and Game is focusing on habitat improvement operations, regulations on elk hunting, liberal seasons and bag limits on black bears, mountain lions, and wolves, and wolf control actions to improve elk populations.
In February, Idaho Fish and Game requested USDA Wildlife Services conduct a control action consistent with Idaho's predation management plan for the Lolo elk zone, where predation by several species is the major reason elk population numbers are considerably below management objectives. Ongoing wolf and elk research has shown that wolves have become the primary predator impacting calf and cow elk survival in the Lolo, contributing to a continual decline in total elk population.
The Lolo predation management plan is posted on the Fish and Game website: http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/public/wildlife/?getPage=325
USDA Wildlife Services specialists killed 19 wolves through aerial control in February. During the last five years, six other agency control actions in Lolo zone removed an additional 48 wolves.
This winter, helicopter crews captured and placed radio collars on additional elk and wolves in the Lolo zone and surrounding area to continue monitoring to see whether prey populations increase in response to regulated wolf hunting, trapping and control actions.
Fish and Game authorizes control actions where wolves are causing conflicts with people or domestic animals, or are a significant factor in prey population declines. Such control actions are consistent with Idaho's 2002 Wolf Conservation and Management Plan approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Idaho Legislature.
Fish and Game prefers to manage wolf populations using hunters and trappers and only authorizes control actions where harvest has been insufficient to meet management goals. The Lolo zone is steep, rugged country that is difficult to access, especially in winter.
In addition to the animals killed in this control action, 11 wolves have been taken by hunters and trappers in the Lolo zone during the 2014-2015 harvest season. The trapping season ends March 31, the hunting season ends June 30. More than 90% of the state's wolf packs are located outside of the Lolo Zone.
Fish and Game has worked with the U.S. Forest Service for over 40 years on several cooperative initiatives to improve habitat for elk. Hunting has been extremely restricted since 1998 in the Lolo Zone, and is not a primary factor limiting population growth. Rifle bull hunting was reduced by 50 percent in the zone in 1998 in the zone and all rifle cow hunts have been eliminated since that same year. Additional restrictions were placed on rifle and archery hunters in 2011. Further, Fish and Game stepped up predation management efforts and has allowed increased bear and lion harvest in the Lolo since 1999 by allowing a 2 bear and 2 mountain lion bag limit, reduced nonresident tag prices, and the opportunity to use a nonresident deer or nonresident elk tag to harvest a black bear, mountain lion, or wolf.
Restoring the Lolo elk population will require liberal bear, mountain lion, and wolf harvest through hunting and trapping (in the case of wolves), and control actions in addition to improving elk habitat. The short-term goals outlined in Fish and Game's 2014 Elk Management Plan are to stabilize the elk population and begin to help it grow.
Here's a link to the Elk Management Plan: http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/public/wildlife/?getpage=324
The overall objective is to maintain a smaller, but self-sustaining, population of wolves in the Lolo zone to allow the elk population to increase.
Idaho Fish and Game does not yet have a cost estimate for last month's wolf control action in the Lolo elk zone. The entire cost will be paid using Wolf Depredation Control Board money funded by sportsmen and women through purchase of hunting licenses.