No bull, bulls only

Declining elk population results in new hunt rules

JEROME A. POLLOS/Press A deer surveys the landscape from a hillside in Fernan Gulch during the late afternoon.

Bulls only.

Hunters who headed out Wednesday for the opening of the regular deer and elk season in the Idaho Panhandle - for the first time - could not take aim at antlerless elk.

Phil Cooper, Idaho Department of Fish and Game regional conservation officer, said declining elk numbers due to wolves and other predators prompted this year's rule. Something had to be done to improve the calf-cow survival rate, he said.

"That is a really big change," he said Wednesday.

Cooper said there was a significant decline in elk numbers in the St. Joe area, which historically has had strong elk populations and is popular with hunters.

In the last five years, the St. Joe elk population has dropped about 60 percent.

"We knew we had to go to bulls only in (units) 7 and 9," he said. "But if they were the areas that were bulls only, we were concerned we would end up with the same problems in other units."

Cooper said while the general cow elk hunt will not be allowed, there are controlled hunts for those who drew tags.

Previously, a tag was good for bulls and cows when Idaho's elk population was stable and strong.

"You could take either one in the past," Cooper said. "This was one of the last places in the country that was the case."

At the same time antlerless elk are off the table in Idaho, there's been a "drastic reduction" in the number of nonresident hunters coming here.

This year, 12,015 nonresident deer tags were available and as of Wednesday, 9,673 were still unsold.

There were 10,415 nonresident elk tags available, with 6,499 remaining unsold as of Wednesday.

Cooper said that in the 1990s, quotas were similar and often sold out in early spring.

This year, with most nonresident tags unsold at the start of the rifle season, there are financial impacts to local businesses that provide supplies, food, fuel and lodging to hunters.

There are negative financial impacts, too, on IDFG license revenue, when nonresident tag sales decline.

Cooper said that hunters may be staying away from Idaho, to some extent, due to national reports of Idaho elk numbers being down due to wolves.

But he said despite a widespread perception elk hunting success rates in Idaho are down, there are still good hunting opportunities in most of the state.

Hunters, he said, need to do their homework to determine where to go for their best chances of getting an elk before heading out.

Ann Sydow of the Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance expressed doubt that lower elk numbers could be attributed to wolves.

She said there were 103,000 elk in Idaho at last count, and now probably less than 500 wolves.

"And IDFG is worried about elk numbers?" she wrote in an email to The Press.

There is one benefit to reduced nonresident tag sales: Some residents like having fewer people in the woods, Cooper said.

"Campsites are easier to find," he said.

The regular deer season also opened Wednesday in many parts of Idaho.

In some areas, a regular deer tag allows hunters to take either mule deer or white-tailed deer. A white-tailed deer tag allows hunters to take only a white-tail.

But Cooper said most hunters "really want to put an elk in the freezer" because they prefer the quality of elk meat.

"The last thing most hunters want to do is shoot a deer when out elk hunting," he said.

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