COEUR d'ALENE - There's good news and bad news, Jim Hayden said.
The Idaho Fish and Game regional wildlife manager spoke to a large crowd of hunters at the IDFG Sportsmen's Breakfast on Tuesday. Clicking through slides at the Lake City Senior Center, he said the elk herds in most Panhandle units are looking healthy, and hunter success rates have been steadily increasing since 2000 - the good news.
"For six out of our nine units, the herds are in good shape," Hayden said.
Cows and calves drive the system, Hayden added. IDFG uses a term called calf recruitment, essentially a combination of birth and survival rates. A strong calf recruitment ratio, one that doesn't worry biologists, is 30 calves for every 100 cows.
According to the latest department surveys, in units 4 and 5 the recruitment is 32 and 39 calves per 100 cows, respectively. At the tip of the Panhandle, Unit 1 comes in at 32 calves.
The numbers point toward a bright future for much of the elk population in North Idaho.
Down in the St. Joe River country, however, data from units 6, 7 and 9 has given IDFG cause for concern.
Following the brutal winter of 2007-08, calf recruitment dropped to nine calves per 100 cows in units 6 and 7. The animals have recovered slightly since then, but in early 2011, surveys indicate just 19 and 12 calves in those respective units.
If nothing is done, the herds could be in trouble.
"That area has a substantial wolf population, we do know that," Hayden said. "Some (situations) can be explained by weather occurrences, but the last year cannot. All indications point to wolf predations. That's not to say that it won't change again next year. We don't know."
In coming seasons, hunters can expect to find mature bulls in the St. Joe country, but spikes, two-year-olds and raghorns will likely be few and far between, Hayden told the sportsmen.
And that's the bad news.
Because wolves are under federal protection, IDFG is not allowed to manage the predators like it would other game animals. That probably won't change until a court ruling removes wolves from the endangered species list.
But, in order to protect vulnerable wildlife populations, IDFG can change hunting seasons.
Earlier this week, the Panhandle Region sent its 2011 season proposals to the Idaho Fish and Game Commission in Boise. The proposals call for less restricted hunting in Panhandle units 1, 2, 3, 4, 4A and 5, and more restricted hunting in units 6, 7 and 9.
"We have a little latitude, given Unit 6 calf recruitment is not as low as farther upstream," Hayden wrote in an e-mail. "So we tried to find a compromise between the two groups, proposing bull only in units 7 and 9, but retaining two of the three days of existing general cow hunting in Unit 6."
B-tag rifle hunters would start their season on Oct. 10 throughout the Panhandle. In the St. Joe units, the antlered season would run Oct. 10-24. Cows could only be harvested in Unit 6, Oct. 15-16.
Rifle hunters with A tags would hit the trail on Oct. 25. They could harvest only antlered elk in units 6, 7 and 9 until Oct. 29.
Bear and cougar seasons will not change in 2011, Hayden said.
The Fish and Game Commission will review statewide proposals and set big game seasons on March 29.
"I'm glad to see that we're getting some of our hunting opportunities back, and hear that the elk herds are doing better," said L.W. Johnson of Hauser, who attended Tuesday's meeting. "It's really unfortunate that we're not able to manage the wolf population."
IDFG collects information from road checkpoints, radio collar studies, surveys and hunter reports. Personnel fly helicopter surveys every year, Hayden said.
The department also hosts open meetings, accepts Internet comments, talks to sportsmen's clubs and posts season-setting info on its website, according to coordinator Mark Taylor. IDFG considers public input while drafting its season proposals.
"We have a pretty good relationship with our sportsmen," Taylor said. "And they're passionate about their elk hunting."
Roy Soltau often hunts in Unit 5, and occasionally in Unit 6. He lives south of Coeur d'Alene in a game-rich area.
"I've seen big herds out there," Soltau said. "But where they are ... it's all luck. It's 99 percent luck."
Tighter elk seasons in the St. Joe county is probably a good idea, he added, though he thinks IDFG should be allowed to control wolves - especially when it looks like they're damaging the elk population.
"We've got to try to get a handle on this thing. I don't know what you can really do," he said. "I don't understand why the states can't do what the states can do."
Detailed season proposals for all big game are available on the Idaho Fish and Game website, fishandgame.idaho.gov.