Elk hunting in the Panhandle has a long and rich tradition. For many years the Panhandle was one of the very few places in the United States that had a general either-sex elk hunt that allowed modern centerfire rifles. In most places, antlerless elk have been managed under limited entry controlled "cow" hunts, or imposed weapon restrictions such as archery-only hunts.
Unfortunately, in 2012, low calf:cow ratios observed during winter elk surveys caused Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) to eliminate the general either-sex elk hunt. So what caused the low calf:cow ratios and is there any encouraging news from current surveys?
The low ratios were not caused by a single issue, but rather a combination of factors. These include declining habitat quality, predation by black bears and mountain lions and wolves, changes in the ability of people to access areas, and technology that can increase hunting success rates. Additionally there are things that people cannot control, such as winter severity and summer drought.
Some of these factors create a cascading effect. For example, declining habitat quality can result in cows in poor body condition. This in turn can result in lower birth weights of calves, something that's been shown to be an important factor in calf survival. The condition of a cow elk can affect the ability to survive severe winters and to escape predators.
What can IDFG do to improve elk hunting in the Panhandle? Because the current situation is caused by many factors, the solution will also have to be multi-pronged.
The first step that IDFG took was the unpopular decision to eliminate the general season on antlerless elk. The change resulted is an increase in cow survival, thus preserving the breeding stock that is going to be necessary to rebuild elk herds.
Another step taken was the liberalization of predator seasons. Black bear and mountain lion seasons have been lengthened and in some units hunters can now use electronic calls and a second tag. Wolf hunting and trapping seasons have been lengthened region-wide and hunters and trappers can take multiple wolves.
But these steps are only part of the solution. Without a long term commitment focused on improving the quality of elk habitat, gains in elk survival will be more difficult to come by.
Elk prefer younger forests that provide nutritious browse. The 1910 fire and large fires in the 1920s and 1930s created expansive shrubfields that were conducive to a growing elk herd. That, coupled with widespread predator reductions, resulted in a very robust elk population starting in the 1950s. These shrubfields are now near or over 100 years old. They don't provide the nutrition they once did, and further, they can be so thick that elk become more vulnerable to predation.
IDFG is working with major landowners, primarily the U. S. Forest Service, to manage forests to benefit elk and other ungulates. Prescribed fire in old shrubfields can help, as can well-designed timber harvest.
Is any of this working? There are encouraging signs that some of these efforts are having a positive effect.
During winter surveys in the Panhandle, IDFG uses a ratio of 30 calves per 100 cows as a yardstick for a healthy elk herd. As recently as 2008, ratios were as high as 43:100 in Unit 7 in the St Joe drainage, but ratios declined following the harsh winters of 2007-09. This isn't unusual following a hard winter, but typically the ratio bounces back within a couple of years. Unfortunately, calf:cow ratios remained low in Unit 7, with winter surveys finding 9, 12 and 13 calves per 100 cows in 2012, 2013, and 2014. Why weren't we seeing a rebound in elk numbers?
Elk can become trapped in a "predator pit". This can happen when elk numbers are reduced for some reason, such as a hard winter, but there is still alternate prey available that support high predator numbers. In northern Idaho, white-tailed deer are abundant and prolific. They can recover quickly from population declines and in turn can support high densities of predators. The high number of predator can take enough elk to keep elk numbers low.
The good news is that surveys conducted this winter showed a substantial increase in elk calf:cow ratios. Ratios in Unit 7 above Avery averaged 30 calves per 100 cows and Unit 6 around Calder had over 40 calves per 100 cows. What happened?
Just like the cause of the decline, it is probably a combination of things. Northern Idaho experienced its third mild winter in a row, something that undoubtedly helped. Liberal hunting seasons on predators affected their numbers and have likely helped elk escape from the predator pit. If the current conditions remain the same or improve, we may see a continued improvement in the St Joe elk herds.
IDFG has no intention of eliminating any of the predator species. IDFG has an obligation to maintain populations of all wildlife in the state and that includes black bears, mountain lions, and wolves. We will, however, take steps to reduce predator numbers when they negatively impact elk or deer populations.
We also can't lose sight of habitat issues. Predation management is expensive and labor intensive and weather events are out of our control. Long term improvements in the quality of elk habitat are an essential part of the equation for insuring the continued existence of healthy Panhandle elk herds.