By RALPH BARTHOLDT
COEUR d’ALENE — In the fall of 1996, snow began filling the North Idaho woods during the rifle elk season in October, and it didn’t stop for three months until January.
When it came, the heavy, wet snow fell silently overnight covering the tents and camp trailers of hunters, filling roads and ditches and catching people and animals off guard.
“They woke up in the morning and saw the snow piled up, and they all hustled to get out,” Rodney Wolfe of St. Maries recalls.
The many hunters who towed campers to faraway mountain hunting hideaways left their camp trailers behind and were lucky to get out of their elk camps with their boots and guns.
On high mountain passes from Freezeout east of Clarkia to Surveyor’s Ridge, local logging companies plowed the road for days helping stranded hunters escape the deluge.
Many elk did not survive the winter. Herds were caught in a veritable killing ground as they traveled into gullies and creek bottoms that quickly filled up with snow where they starved and became easy prey for predators.
The massive winterkill affected Panhandle elk herds and management decisions into the early 2000s.
As weather watchers predict another higher- than-average snow year with the first snow forecast this week, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game managers are keeping a close watch on the long-term outlook.
“It’s something we need to pay attention to,” Wayne Wakkinen regional wildlife manager in Coeur d’Alene said.
The record-snowfall winter 21 years ago preceded another hard winter a year later that resulted in a shift in elk seasons, and attitudes.
As a result, Fish and Game narrowed the general cow season, which was frowned upon by hunters who thought cow harvest should be eliminated altogether in an effort to increase the Panhandle’s reeling elk population.
“We had a couple back-to-back winters that were records,” Wakkinen said. “Calf production dropped.”
In the two decades since, the department has dealt with a variety of elk management bumps including additional high-snow years in 2008 and again in 2011, along with predation issues and a maturing forest that means less browse for ungulates.
But the winter of 1996 will go down in the books as a catastrophic natural disaster that outdoorsman like Wolfe still draw on when considering weather and its affect on elk herds.
Wolfe, who regularly traveled the high country trails back then, said elk were so abundant in the summer of 1996 that he ran into herds and individual elk almost wherever he hiked in the St. Joe drainage.
The picture changed drastically a year later.
When Wolfe and others made their annual hikes into the mountains of the St. Joe the following spring, they were surprised by the toll of the previous winter.
“When (the snow) came, it just came so fast and hard it trapped everything,” Wolfe said. From the mountains north and west of the Mallard Larkins herds had attempted to move to lower elevations in the wake of the snowfall.
“They moved downhill, which is natural for them to do, and a whole bunch of them got trapped in there,” he said.
He found elk carcasses the following spring and summer, some of them with their horns stripped by other hikers who found them first, others with their ivories cut out.
“There were dead elk … carcasses in the hills, in the creeks and rivers there was so much snow,” he said.
The woods seemed full of dead elk, and devoid of the live ones, he said.
There’s always a reasonable chance for a repeat, said Meteorologist Randy Mann.
When it comes to weather, Mann isn’t dismissive.
The chance of another tough winter on Panhandle elk and deer could be in the offing.
“It’s possible,” Mann said. “We’re having a pattern that’s setting up for more snow than normal.”
And the snow season may already be here.
“It’s very early,” he said.
Snow is supposed to touchdown at elevations around 3,000 feet by Friday and fall again after a brief respite, he said.
“In the mountains for sure,” he said. “We’re in a flip pattern.”
As hunters continue to head into the woods for the general elk season that began this week, often with RV trailers in tow, weather watching should be part of the plan.
“As we get more moisture later on this month, I think we’ll have above normal snowfall especially in the mountains,” Mann said.