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Idaho strives to restore dwindling elk herds

LEWISTON, Idaho — The Clearwater River Basin was once considered elk-hunting heaven.

Huge fires in 1910, 1919 and 1934 created vast open slopes where brush that elk favor flourished. Hunters had little trouble finding animals for much of the 1950s to 1980s.

"It's safe to say I could see 100 head in 10 days of hunting," said Jim Metcalf of Kamiah, who has been hunting the Lolo Hunting Zone for 25 years. "And today I saw one cow and I hunted 20 days this year and that cow was really spooky."

The habitat slowly changed. By the mid-20th century, the U.S. Forest Service aggressively fought and suppressed wildfires. The open country closed in over the decades, and the once-lush slopes became crowded with aged brush.

Tall shrubs offered poor nutritional value for elk and the thick stands of trees helped predators like mountain lions and bears.

The elk population began to slide. In the winter of 1996 and 1997, the slide became a plunge. Storms piled snow packs to 200 percent of the historic average. Thousands of elk died. Since then too few elk have been born and survived for the herds to rebound.

The elk slide that became a plunge occurred at the same time wolves were reintroduced to the Frank Church River of No Return and Selway-Bitterroot wilderness areas. The events, however, are not considered to be related.

When wolves were first reintroduced, only 35 of them roamed millions of acres. Wolf packs did not heavily colonize the Lolo Hunting Zone until 2000.

In response to the plunge, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Forest Service and elk hunters banded together to look for solutions. Poor habitat was identified as a key problem but biologists also said healthy populations of natural predators like black bears and mountain lions were hurting elk.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game liberalized bag limits and hunting seasons for bears and lions. In some places, bear harvest doubled and even tripled.

The department also ended cow hunting in the area and capped the sale of general rifle tags at 1,600. Because of the cap and the reduced elk population, the number of bull elk killed in the Lolo Hunting Zone dropped.

But the area remains a popular hunting destination. The tags typically sell out each fall and hunters there do manage to find some bulls to shoot.

The U.S. Forest Service has begun a campaign to improve elk habitat. The agency is lighting fires to create openings and rejuvenate old brush fields.

In some pre-approved areas the agency is allowing natural wildfires to burn. The agency also is targeting timber harvest in roaded sections of the upper Clearwater.

Wolf packs moved into the Lolo zone in about 2000, but Metcalf said he saw them as early as 1995. He said they really started hitting elk and other game in about 2002.

Fish and game biologists now contend that wolves, when combined with poor habitat and other predators, are preventing elk from rebounding.