MARCH 11, 2010

March 11, 2010

By Cal Groen, Director, IDFG

   The Lolo elk herd is in trouble. The latest counts put the herd at 2,178 with poor survival of the cows and calves needed to replenish the herd.

   Idaho Fish and Game is committed to saving the Lolo herd and keeping Idaho's other elk herds healthy.

   The elk situation in the Lolo elk management zone didn't happen overnight. The Lolo elk herd had glory days after major fires in the early 1900s created phenomenal elk habitat in the Clearwater Region. Elk numbers peaked at 16,000 in the 1980s.

   But re-growth of brush and forest turned great elk habitat into poor habitat. Predation by bears and mountain lions took its toll.

   Following the severe winter of 1996-1997, Lolo elk numbers dropped by nearly half. When the population didn't rebound, Idaho Fish and Game took aggressive steps. We drastically reduced hunter numbers, and ended all cow harvest. We increased bear and lion hunting opportunities to reduce predation. We worked with other partners to improve habitat. Elk numbers started increasing.

   Then wolves took over and became the leading cause of Lolo elk deaths. It wasn't until May of last year that the state could finally manage wolves. By then, the balance of elk and wolves in the Lolo Zone was completely out of whack. Extreme predation on adult females and calves means not enough calves survive to replace the adults that die each year.

   Idaho began taking steps to reduce wolf numbers with its first regulated wolf hunt starting Sept. 1, 2009. But hunters in the steep, brushy Lolo country have had limited success, taking just 11 wolves of the Lolo zone harvest limit of 27 to date.

   With the latest Lolo elk numbers, it is clear more aggressive wolf management is needed to restore the herd. State wildlife managers will recommend significant changes to wolf seasons in the Lolo and other elk-depressed zones, consistent with the 2008-2012 Idaho Wolf Management Plan. These management tools could include increased harvest limits, multiple tags, trapping, and asking outfitters to help reduce wolf numbers.

   Even with fewer wolves, changes in the landscape make it unlikely Lolo elk will return to the all-time highs of the 1980s. But Fish and Game will do what it takes to restore the health of the Lolo herd.

   For many of us, it's more than just professional interest; this herd has personal significance to many Idaho wildlife managers. And finding the right balance for our big game herds and other wildlife is at the heart of Fish and Game's mission.

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