A multiyear research project aiming to measure the quality of elk habitat across the vast Clearwater region in Idaho is in its final stages.
The effort funded by the Clearwater Basin Collaborative and other partners, including the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, began in 2014 and is expected to produce detailed models of the quality of elk forage in several different locations and give both land and game managers a better idea of what can be done to improve habitat for the animals.
“The end goal is to have a really highly usable habitat model that land management agencies, mostly the Forest Service, can utilize to help focus and guide habitat activities, where we can really hope to get the biggest bang for the buck based on some of this habitat information,” said Jerome Hansen, of Lewiston, a retired Idaho Fish and Game manager and member of the collaborative. “The end goal is it will make a difference and help achieve some future larger-scale habitat work on the ground.”
Andrew Skowlund, ranger of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest’s North Fork District, sees the forthcoming data and models as a boon to land managers as they work through the process of planning habitat restoration projects.
“It will be hugely beneficial to me to be able to have the most current scientific information about what the elk are doing out there, what they are eating and what their preferences are,” Skowlund said. “When the research was done right there, it just makes it a little easier — having that data right where you are thinking about doing a particular project.”
Elk in some areas of the Clearwater Basin, most notably the Lolo and Selway zones, have been struggling for more than two decades. In the Lolo Zone, changing habitat conditions like the conversion of open forests and young brush fields into older and denser vegetation types has reduced the availability of summer feed for elk. Combine that with a few severe winters and predation by wolves, black bears and mountain lions, and it’s a recipe for declining productivity.
Elk numbers there plunged from more than 15,000 animals in the late 1980s to fewer than 2,000 in 2017. Hunter effort also declined. According to numbers compiled by retired Idaho Fish and Game biologist Mike Schlegel of Grangeville, an annual average of 4,383 people spent about 33,500 days hunting in the Lolo Zone and killed about 1,000 bull elk from 1992 to 1996. From 2014 to 2018, those numbers dropped to 791 hunters and 5,600 hunter days, with a harvest of 141 elk.
Schlegel figures for the same years across the entire Clearwater Region hunters have declined by 40 percent, harvest is down 42 percent and hunter days dropped by nearly 50 percent. Using an inflation-adjusted economic value of about $148 for each day a hunter spent pursuing elk, he figures businesses in the region have missed out on more than $10 million from the loss of hunting between the two time frames.
“The local businesses that benefit directly and indirectly from the economic value associated with elk hunting, they are sacrificing $10.5 million a year just because nobody is doing anything to correct the situation,” he said.
Game managers from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game have attempted to reduce predation in the Lolo Zone through liberal hunting and trapping regulations, and the near-yearly killing of wolves from helicopters by contractors and employees of the federal Wildlife Services Agency.
Fish and Game biologists hoped to combine those efforts with actions such as targeted timber sales and prescribed burns to convert some of the dense and aging vegetation to types and ages of plants more nutritious to elk. But the land is managed largely by the U.S. Forest Service, which has only been able to implement elk friendly habitat manipulation in fits and starts.
The agency has been slowed by its time-consuming National Environmental Policy Act process, and difficulties in implementing summer prescribed burns when fire danger is high and smoke is inundating nearby communities in Idaho and Montana.
“When (it’s dry enough to burn), oftentimes it’s later in the summer, and we may be dealing with a lot of wildfire activity, not only here on the forest but also within the region, so getting the authorization to be able to do some ignitions, light the match so to speak, can be challenging as well as the smoke management especially over in the Bitterroot Valley,” Skowlund said. “If they are socked in from wildfires all around them and we tell folks we want to do a prescribed burn, they are often not happy to hear we are going to be adding some minimal, but nonetheless more, smoke to the air.”
The research isn’t confined to the Lolo area however. It has included work near Craig Mountain, Dworshak Reservoir, South Fork of the Clearwater and even some in the St. Joe River Basin.
John Cook, a Forest Service researcher at La Grande, Ore., overseeing the research with his wife, Rachel Cook, said over the past two summers, his team has worked to sample the forage quality and quantity in many different habitat types, ranging from the dry slopes of Hells Canyon to the wet and dense forest type found in the Lolo Zone.
“That data is pretty important,” Cook said. “A lot of modeling work we did before, we kind of lacked that aspect.”
Earlier work focused on placing radio collars on elk in the various areas so they could be followed, and researchers could determine how well the habitat was supporting them based on factors like their overall condition and pregnancy rates.
“The initial indication is yes, there are some pretty important indicators that nutritional limitations, particularly in the summer, are operating over there,” he said. “It tells us it’s important to consider the quality of habitat available to elk and in particular the nutritional value of different habitats available to them, and how land management might influence the nutritional value of those habitats.”
Alex Irby, a former co-chairman of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, said he understands that some hunters are tired of studies and are eager to see on-the-ground actions. Irby agrees but also said the work will pay dividends.
“I’ve always been frustrated but recognize in order for people to accept the prognosis you have to have good research,” he said. “We will at least have something we can hold up and say this is what we need to return some stability in the area.”
Schlegel is firmly in the camp that believes it’s time to stop researching and begin serious efforts at manipulating elk habitat. He noted elk numbers have been depressed in many areas since the severe winter of 1997, and both land managers and biologists have long known what the problem is.
“As far as I know, there has been a research project in the Clearwater (region) every year since 1965, so what else is there to learn?” he said. “It’s time to do something on the ground. It’s been 22 years.”