Managing big game populations by harvest regulations alone is seldom accomplished by state wildlife managers in this day and age. Back when big game harvest was much lower during the early- to mid- last century, managers could stick with a particular harvest scheme for years and not have much of an impact on big game populations overall.
Roads for hunting access were far and few between in the west's rugged backcountry back then and the hunting technology and diversity of that technology was nowhere near what it is today. Big game populations fluctuated more naturally then and their survival was mostly dependent on their habitat, winter weather conditions, disease and predation.
Those four survival (or mortality) factors are still very instrumental in determining whether many of our big game species survive or die each year; deer, elk, moose, as well as our large carnivores. Some of our larger carnivores are heavily dependent on big game prey, so you could guess that when deer, elk and moose populations fluctuate their predators fluctuate in numbers as well.
This is called a predator-prey lag effect where predator populations mimic and lag just a few years behind the changes in prey populations. As with any wildlife species, when living conditions are good and food is plentiful they flourish. And when not, they tend to die or not reproduce as much.
Now let's plug this natural process of life and death in the wild into today's world and see what our wildlife managers are faced with.
By February, I'm usually getting cabin fever and I'm anxious to at least hunt turkeys. So I will relent and turn on the hunting channels to watch some hunting action. I am astounded by the supply and demand for new hunting technologies, gadgets and techniques to harvest game.
To me, it appears we've lost the appeal for the challenge of the hunt and replaced it with the importance of just being successful in the hunt. The first time I killed a bull with my new modern bow, it almost felt unfair to me, but I will have to admit that I do enjoy the more regular elk meat meals these days.
Increased hunter access, enhanced hunting projectile technologies and the development of a plethora of off-road vehicles have all improved hunter success drastically over the decades. Now let's throw our recent extreme winters into the mix and reintroduce a dominant predator back into the ecosystem.
Any good wildlife manager is clearly going to have to alter the big game regulations to limit opportunity until the clouds pass and the ecosystem stabilizes to current conditions. They must manage wildlife for the long term, so that future generations can enjoy all wildlife species and/or harvest that game animal.
Winter calf elk survival up the St. Joe River in units 6, 7 and 9 has fallen significantly over the past two years. There are still decent numbers of adult elk (including bulls) in these big game units, but so far from what I've seen up there this archery season, there are a few younger age classes of elk that are missing from the overall population.
And to me, it appears that those lost age classes of elk are mostly coinciding with our past three out of four bad winters. We all know that wolves and cougars have better hunting success when the snow is deep and the conditions weaken or limit the escape of their prey, so it has clearly been a doubling impact on our young and old elk up the Joe. I will be monitoring those impacts again this winter and let you know what I see.
So what can we do about it all?
Well, I can tell you that we are doing all we can right now to help our local deer and elk populations recover. Here is a short list of what we are doing:
Attempting to reduce or not allow cow elk harvest in units 6, 7 and 9 and shift hunter pressure to other more elk plentiful units in the Panhandle in the short term.
We are back in the business of managing wolves again and we are making a bold management move to both hunt and trap wolves this fall and winter.
We are researching many ways of monitoring wolf populations locally.
We have begun a cow elk mortality study up the St. Joe River.
We are working closely with land managers like the U.S. Forest Service to enhance big game habitat with fire, which helps to increase calf production and elk survival rates.
2011-2012 Wolf Hunting Season:
Standard hunting season dates statewide: Aug. 30 to March 31, except for Aug. 30 to Dec. 31 in Island Park and Beaverhead wolf management zones and Aug. 30 to June 30 in Lolo and Selway zones.
Hunters may buy two tags per calendar year.
Bag limit: No person may take more than one wolf per legal tag in his or her possession.
Hunting hours are one half hour before sunrise to one half hour after sunset.
Wolf seasons are any-weapon seasons.
Electronic calls may be used statewide.
Wolves may be taken incidentally during fall bear baiting.
Reduced-price nonresident wolf tags ($31.75) statewide.
Hunters must report killing a wolf within 72 hours. Hunters must present skull and hide to IDFG office within 10 days.
The wolf season closes when the harvest limit for that zone is reached or the season closing date, whichever comes first.
Idaho Fish and Game is conducting wolf trapping seminars around the state for trappers who want to trap wolves this trapping season. A good trapping ethic is our No. 1 priority with this harvest opportunity on wolves. Literally, the rest of our nation is watching how we conduct ourselves here in Idaho with the use of trapping as a management tool for wolves.
The wolf trapping seminar is mandatory for anyone who attempts to trap a wolf. You have to be certified by taking this wolf trapping course before you can purchase wolf trapping tags. If you have not taken this wolf trapping course and have not been certified as an Idaho Wolf Trapper on our list and you are found attempting to trap a wolf you will be in violation of the law. Avoiding non-target trapping kills and promoting good ethics on trapping wolves is of the utmost importance to us all. Trust me on this one.
I attended and helped with our local wolf trapping seminar recently and I was pleasantly surprised at how well the training was received and how our trappers understood the challenge of the spotlight being placed on them.
My biggest fear is the local backyard trapper, (lawfully or unlawfully), setting snares out back this winter to catch a wolf that has followed the deer or elk down and all they end up doing is snaring and killing a deer, small elk or the neighbor's dog. Please leave the wolf trapping to the certified wolf trappers - you will just do more harm than good if you are not a skilled wolf trapper.
Jerry Hugo is St. Joe River Senior Conservation Officer with the Idaho Department of Fish & Game.