BOISE • Despite getting an earful at a marathon public hearing the night before, Idaho Fish and Game commissioners said little Thursday before unanimously approving a statewide elk management plan.
Little is left to say about the 10-year plan, which took the better part of a year to craft, said Mark Doerr, a commission nominee from the Magic Valley.
“There wasn’t much to talk about because they already made the changes we were looking for,” Doerr said.
He said he’s comfortable with the plan, and the commission can make regulatory changes any time if needed.
The plan monitors elk habitat changes, the damage that growing elk populations have on crops and fences, and seeks to more aggressively target predators such as bears, mountain lions and, most notably, wolves.
Besides that, though, little has changed since the plan’s last update in 1999, said Toby Boudreau, a wildlife program coordinator who wrote the new plan.
Boudreau said he doesn’t expect major changes, only normal fluctuation in permitting activity based on populations.
Some management zone boundaries have been redrawn to better reflect elk movements and populations, he said.
Also new is a list of factors that limit elk numbers and prescribe corresponding actions to reduce them, he said. Those factors are specific to each management zone and range from predation to habitat loss and human development.
“In those areas where habitat either moderately or highly limits elk populations, we actually built in metrics for habitat change,” he said. “Basically that’s treating a number of acres of noxious weeds, prescribed burning or logging a certain number of acres to promote elk calving habitat or winter range or whatever. They are specific to each zone.“
In some areas, elk populations are doing well. In others, the animal has been decimated. In the remote Lolo zone, for example, elk herds have declined 80 percent over 20 years, he said. Boudreau said 9½ management zones are meeting population objectives, 11 exceed goals and 8½ are below.
“You read our section in the report, and it is a bright spot,” Doerr said of Magic Valley elk.
In 2013 was Idaho’s first year of increased elk tag sales since 2008. Last year, 86,130 tags were purchased, compared with 80,577 in 2012 — the lowest year of sales since the economy crashed.
In areas where elk populations have boomed, such as the Magic Valley, the ungulate has caused headaches for farmers. Boudreau said Fish and Game plans a legislative request to add staff in each region to help.
“Like help haze (them into other areas) and listening to the farmers, hearing the problems and seeing what they can do to reduce the elk impact.”
That’s already happening locally, said Jerome Hansen, Magic Valley regional supervisor.
“We are blessed with a lot of good elk habitat, but we have to be very conscience of agricultural impacts,” he said. “... We hired a ’hazer dude,’ we call him, who worked in some of our hot spots this summer, and it was good.“
For the last plan update, managers could only guess how wolf reintroduction would influence elk numbers.
Although separate plans, the elk and predator management plans are linked in many ways. Boudreau said the new elk plan more aggressively targets predators where appropriate.
In some areas, elk numbers have dropped significantly because of wolves’ presence. But elk decline in other areas may be the result of overharvesting or other factors.
At a recent commission meeting in Jerome, many Magic Valley hunters said the reintroduction of wolves is the biggest threat to elk herds where they hunt. Hunters across the state overwhelmingly backed more aggressive wolf control measures, say written comments submitted as the plan was being drafted.
In Boise on Wednesday night, many biologists, advocates and wildlife enthusiasts questioned the science and ethics behind Fish and Game’s predator management. Some said the state isn’t managing the range for a balanced ecosystem, but rather to turn it into an “elk farm.“
Elk hunters’ success rate is 22 percent. Those rates were much higher — around 32 percent — in the early 1990s before wolves arrived, Boudreau said.
“While I don’t know if I would use that exact word, ‘decimation,’ it is pretty bad (in some areas),” he said.
Doerr said he approves of the predator management plan as a balanced approach to the wolf-elk debate; elk numbers are down across Idaho now and wolf numbers are up.
Many trappers told the commission it was too costly and time-consuming to pursue wolves, especially in remote areas. Doerr said he wanted to tweak wolf trapping and hunting rules to make it “more attractive.“
“The wolves are here to stay. And despite the vernacular that has gotten into the argument right now, that Fish and Game is exterminating wolves, that’s not the objective,” he said.