Idaho Fish and Game is pulling out the stops this winter to get a better handle on the number of big game animals that roam the Panhandle of the Gem State.
Using helicopters, game cameras and ground pounding, the department, its technicians and biologists plan to get a good start on documenting game herds.
Low-flying helicopters and airplanes will be circling over Panhandle forests during January as part of Fish and Game’s big game monitoring, said Kiira Siitari, a former fisheries biologist who functions as the Panhandle’s information officer. Siitari said biologists will focus first on North Idaho’s most prized large mammals including elk, mountain goat and moose.
During winter, state biologists across Idaho use aerial surveys to count big game and to estimate the ratio of adults to young, which helps determine population growth.
The aerial surveys usually begin in December or January and end in March
The surveys provide the information that guides year-to-year game management decisions, according to the department.
Care is taken to minimize disturbing animals, which could result in the animals expending energy they need to get through the cold, snow season.
In addition to surveys, the department will capture and collar hundreds of deer and elk throughout Idaho. The collared animals will be monitored to assess herd survival through spring.
Helicopter crews will capture and place GPS collars on animals to provide data on their movement, survival and habitat use.
“The goal is to fly [game management] units 1, 6, and 10A this season.” said wildlife biologist Barb Moore. “When and where we fly depends on the weather.”
Snow makes it easier to spot animals from the air, but low-cloud ceilings and lousy conditions affect flight plans.
Ground crews will also collar elk, deer, moose, mountain lion and wolves. Black bears will be captured and collared in the spring to round out the large mammal community study, Siitari said.
In addition, game cameras will be used to track and sex animals to help biologists generate more reliable estimates of sex ratios for mule deer in Southern Idaho.
In the past aerial surveys were used to generate sex ratio estimates, but because of ground cover that hides animals, only a small portion of a winter range could be sampled from the air. The use of cameras will expand the study over the entire range. Bucks aren’t always congregated with does and fawns on winter range.
The same goes for North Idaho elk herds, biologists said. Dense vegetation in the Panhandle makes helicopter surveys in some areas where elk live in winter impractical and results inconsistent. By using game cameras, the department expects to compile information leading to the first, complete population and sex ratio estimates in North Idaho.
The ratios are also used to manage populations and ensure adequate numbers of breeding-age cows and does on the landscape. They will also help determine whether enough young animals inhabitat game management units to sustain or grow elk and deer herds.
For at least the last five years, flights focused on collaring elk in the Silver Valley, North Fork Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe River drainages. This year, flights will extend into portions of Bonner and Boundary Counties and the St. Maries River Basin.
“We are trying to include parts of all the northern forest habitat types,” said wildlife biologist Laura Wolf.
The amount and quality of food for deer, elk and moose can vary greatly across the region, Wolf said.
Reports used in this article were compiled from Fish and Game sources across Idaho.