"Wildlife managers face challenges from growth and climate"

By Roger Phillips
Boise, Idaho
(AP) 3-08

The 1,200 elk roaming the sagebrush plains north of Interstate 84 between Boise and Mountain Home this winter illustrate the challenge Idaho faces in maintaining big game herds.

What is now winter wildlife habitat could one day be subdivisions.

“People ought to go look at the elk now and wonder where they’re going to be 50 years from now,” said Jim Unsworth, wildlife bureau chief for Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Winter has been a strong reminder of the challenges facing Idaho’s big game animals. In addition to the elk wintering along I-84, large herds of mule deer have been wedged in the Treasure Valley’s Foothills between deep snow above and Idaho’s most populated communities below.

Idaho wildlife has survived hard winters for centuries. But developed and degraded habitat, extended drought and long-term climate change could take a greater toll on future wildlife populations.

Some of Idaho’s most iconic animals, such as elk and bighorn sheep, are in decline. Other big game populations, such as mule deer and pronghorn antelope, are stable but below the levels of previous decades.

Wildlife is important to Idaho’s quality of life everyone from hunters to hikers to sightseeing families wants thriving animal populations.

Wildlife is also important to Idaho’s $3 billion-a-year tourist economy, the state’s third-largest industry. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2006 survey reported that more than 1 million people participated in “wildlife-associated recreation” in Idaho including hunting, fishing and wildlife watching and spent $922 million in the process.

Hunters spent about $40 million in license and tag fees in 2007. That accounts for more than half of Fish and Game’s annual budget, and the agency manages all of the state’s wildlife, not just big game animals.

Fish and Game officials will set hunting rules in March. In advance of those decisions, we asked Fish and Game for population trends and asked people outside the agency about why big game animals are important and what challenges they face.

Elk:

– Estimated population by state officials is 115,000.

– Population trend: Declining over the past 10 years

– Why they’re important: A bull elk is one of Idaho’s most iconic animals. You can find elk antlers adorning a barn in Orofino or a ritzy hotel in Sun Valley.

“They’re a big, majestic animal,” said Jim Peek, an elk expert and retired wildlife professor at University of Idaho. “There’s just nothing about them that doesn’t capture a hunter’s imagination, or anyone else’s for that matter.”

Elk hunting is an Idaho tradition with a rich heritage. Because it is difficult to find elk, and a big chore to get a downed one out of the woods, hunts often center around large camps that include generations of hunters. Elk hunting also attracts lots of nonresident hunters, who paid $7.6 million in license and tag fees in 2007, which was a fraction of their total cost to hunt.

– Challenges: Elk and wolves are likely to be a major battle for years to come, and regardless of what happens on the ground, some people will always blame wolves if there are fewer elk. Brad Compton, F&G state big game manager, said when there are between 700 and 800 wolves in the state and they’re eating elk, it is bound to affect the size of some elk herds.

Peek says declining habitat, especially in the North Idaho and the Clearwater areas, has largely been responsible for the declining elk population. Backcountry herds also have large segments of older cows, which produce fewer and smaller calves that are less likely to survive. Whether wolves are responsible for declining herds, they definitely are creating management challenges for F&G’s biologists, who are trying to maintain a predator/prey balance while also satisfying hunters that contribute a large share of the agency’s budget.

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Bighorn sheep:

– Population estimated at 4,000.

– Population trend: Decreasing over the past 10 years.

– Why they’re important: Along with elk, bighorns are an iconic big game animal and most often associated with wild, undeveloped country. Bighorns were historically important for American Indians and early settlers. Indian tribes hunted sheep for food and used their horns for everything from bows to spoons.

Bighorn sheep tags are the only tags in Idaho sold at auction. A hunter from British Columbia recently paid $65,000 for an Idaho bighorn sheep tag, which is still a fraction of the record $180,000 a hunter paid in 2005. It is also a thrill for people to see bighorns in Idaho’s wildest places, like Hells Canyon and the Frank Church Wilderness, but bighorns were once more widespread and easily viewed.

“That’s a great experience, and we’ve kind of lost that in our culture,” said Craig Gehrke, regional director for The Wilderness Society.

– Challenges: Historically, bighorn sheep populations were estimated around 10,000 animals in Hells Canyon alone, and thousands more roamed other parts of the states. Now there are small herds scattered in a few areas of the state, and many transplanted into areas where native herds died or were killed.

There’s a long-term problem between wild and domestic sheep. When the two intermingle, bighorns often contract pneumonia, and many bighorns die. Bighorn sheep range over broad areas, so if a disease outbreak occurs in the Lewiston area, it could affect herds all the way the way through Hells Canyon. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter recently convened a panel to look come up with a strategy for keeping bighorns and domestic sheep separated, but many people fear it will mean less habitat available for bighorns.

“I’m afraid the state is going down this management plan where they say bighorns can be in Hells Canyon, but if they come out, they will be shot,” Gehrke said.

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Pronghorn antelope:

– Population estimated by state game managers at 12,000.

– Population trend: Stable to slightly increasing the past 10 years, but down from decades ago.

– Why they’re important: Pronghorns are indigenous to North America and found nowhere else in the world. According to the National Park Service, and they have roamed in the West for at least a million years and remained physically unchanged. Pronghorns live in open country, and their tan and white colors make them easy for wildlife watchers to spot. Pronghorns are also a popular big game animal for hunters, thousands of whom apply for a limited number of pronghorn tags every year.

– Challenges: Pronghorns rely on large open spaces like sagebrush and grasslands. Warmer, drier weather has contributed to wildfires that have burned hundreds of thousands of acres of pronghorn habitat, and fewer young pronghorns are produced during dry years.

Pronghorns can be intolerant of development; for example, they can become entangled in fences or have difficulty getting through them, which can block their movement. Pronghorns are attracted to agriculture lands because there’s usually water and forage there. Antelope often are found in large herds, which can cause damage to private property when they descend on cultivated fields.

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White-tailed deer:

– Population estimated at 200,000.

– Population trend: Increasing in the past 10 years.

– Why they’re important: White-tailed deer are the most abundant big game animal north of the Salmon River, and their high numbers and robust populations provide long hunting seasons. Whitetails’ high tolerance for humans makes them popular for wildlife watchers. People move out of cities to get closer to nature, and whitetails often will live year-round within a short distance of homes and become almost like pets. Hunters enjoy whitetail hunting from late August into December and either-sex hunting in many cases so whitetails are important for recreation and food.

“They’re definitely part of the culture up here,” said F&G’s Jay Crenshaw, wildlife manager for the Clearwater Region. “I think in general, people have come to expect relatively high densities of whitetails.”

– Challenges: Maintaining high population densities put deer at risk for disease transmission. A disease outbreak several years ago killed thousands of whitetails in the Clearwater Region. Lots of whitetails mean happy hunters, but unhappy farmers because the deer can cause crop damage.

“It’s a constant battle to find a balance,” Crenshaw said. And it is not just agriculture lands that have problems with excessive deer. Whitetails will live year-round within city limits or in the suburbs. “People like them until they jump over the fence and start eating their gardens,” Crenshaw said.

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Mule deer:

– Population estimated at 300,000.

– Population trend: Stable over the past 10 years, but down from historic highs in the 1950s and 1960s.

– Why they’re important: They’re the most abundant and widespread big game animal in the state.

“There’s mule deer in every county in the state,” Unsworth said. Mule deer are also the most popular quarry for hunters, and “you can’t underestimate their value as watchable wildlife,” he said. Mule deer account for the largest portion of the annual big game harvest, which provides food for thousands of hunters. Mule deer are also a significant prey base for mountain lions, coyotes and other predators.

– Challenges: Mule deer numbers are stable but are unlikely to return to previous high numbers, Unsworth said. Development, drought and invasive weeds, like cheatgrass and others that invade winter range, have taken a toll on mule deer.

“The biggest challenge is probably loss of habitat,” Unsworth said. F&G also must try to satisfy hunters who want abundant herds in accessible areas. Mule deer hunting is popular with younger and older hunters who are less able to get into the backcountry areas.

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Wolves:

– Population estimated at 730 by state and federal biologists.

– Population trend: Increasing 10 percent annually.

– Why they’re important: “Wolves are a native member of the wildlife community and, therefore, have their rightful place in Idaho’s wildlife landscape,” said Jim Holyan, wildlife biologist for the Nez Perce Tribe.

There was widespread public support for restoring wolves, and hearing one howl or seeing one is special to people, Holyan said. Some argue wolves are detrimental to other big game species, but that argument has been made against all of Idaho’s large predators.

Most of the wolves’ harshest critics accept that the animals are here to stay, and F&G could take full control of the animals in March, which would round out a diverse population of big game animals, both predators and prey. Wolf-watching has brought millions of tourist dollars to businesses near Yellowstone, and that could spread to Idaho.

– Challenges: Biologists say managing wolves will be a social issue, not a biological one, because wolves have proven they can thrive in Idaho. But there’s a major court battle brewing over whether to remove wolves from the endangered species list. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed delisting wolves on Feb. 21, and national and Idaho wolf advocates want to keep wolves protected so populations will continue to grow and spread into other Western states. When or if wolves are delisted, F&G will come under intense pressure from hunters and Idaho legislators to drastically reduce wolf populations.

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Population and trends for Idaho’s other big game animals:

– Moose: F&G’s estimated population: 15,000. Population trend: Increasing, but growth has slowed the past 10 years.

– Mountain goat: F&G’s estimated population: 2,500. Population trend: Stable.

– Mountain lion: F&G’s estimated population: 2,000 to 2,500. Population trend: Declining or stabilizing in different areas.

– Black bear: F&G’s estimated population: 20,000. Population trend: Stable.

– Grizzly bear: F&G’s estimated population: 50 on the U.S. sides of the Selkirk Mountains, 20 to 40 in the Yellowstone area that move in and out of the park. Population trend: Slowly increasing in both areas.

 

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