Round 1 ~continued~

Elk Hunting Idaho: The emblematic Sawtooths, or the mighty Tetons?

ROUND 1 ~ Continued ~

Idaho's Middle Fork Elk Zone

Interview With Idaho Waterfowl Association - Part 4

All about the IWA...

Growler Is Dead

Dirk Durham on the inspiration of elusive legends...

Guest Post

A Thanksgiving excursion to SE Idaho yields some impressive fishing.

February Facebook Contest & Giveaway

You want this "one-size-fits-most" Sitka cap?  Of course you do.  Here is how it works:

1. Befriend me on Facebook here, if you haven't already.

2. Once on my Facebook wall, post a picture of the most scenic spot in your state.  We all know Idaho is the most scenic, but it's nice to see other places too.

3. With your photo, you have to include this comment or caption:  "I'd rather be in Idaho, but here's scenic (your state)."  Or, if the picture is of Idaho, just include the county and/or city.

4. The photo with the most "likes" and/or comments wins.  Ends 2/29/12 at 11:59 pm.

"The Simplot Saga"

One more quick hit for today. If you live in Idaho, or you just want to understand the basis for how this state was built, Forbes magazine has a lengthy and in-depth piece called "The Simplot Saga."

What J.R. did, and what his legacy is doing today, intimately affects most parts of Idaho politics in one way or another.  And that includes issues regarding Idaho's land and wildlife.
Grab a McD's large fry, sit down, and learn.

~ J. Bunch

OK, I Will Say Something About Sage Grouse

But not much.  I know that I should be more attuned to the sage grouse situation.  I just can't get too excited about it, and since this site is about what interests me, I'm going to let it go by offering up a couple of recent news articles on the situation.  In case you're interested.

Here is an AP article which reports than an Idaho federal judge ruled against environmental groups who were appealing for instant and greater protection of the sage grouse. 

And here is Rocky Barker's take on the sticky situation in the Idaho Statesman.

Happy reading.

~ J. Bunch

Public Meeting On Proposed Caribou Critical Habitat Gets Feisty

Back in the news again are our 3 caribou, and the feds' plan to section off 600 square miles of N. Idaho and Washington as critical habitat for the trio.  Of note, again, is that 3 caribou is the average count over the past several years.  Last year, no caribou were counted in Idaho or Washington.

That has locals wondering why we need critical habitat for a species that is virtually not there.  Ah hah, says the environmental groups, accusing the locals of missing the point.  And that shouldn't need much explaining.

By policy, the feds are required to assign critical habitat for species that are managed under the Endangered Species Act.  Environmental groups finally sued the feds enough, that the feds were finally forced to make their way back into the dark, wet, tea-partied backwoods of Idaho's north country.  I wouldn't want to be in their shoes either.

But they showed up, and took it in the teeth from around 200 locals.  The locals will do anything to stop this federal "land grab" (their words) that would harm an economy dependent upon access to the Selkirk woods, where the critical habitat is proposed, a place where logging and sport snowmobiling has already taken hits by federal regulations.

I believe the locals' attempts will ultimately be futile.  But it's important to fight.  This situation should be eyed as a prime example of how federal government bureaucracy really gums things up in areas where it should just get lost.

You can read more on the public meeting here.

~ J. Bunch

2012 Hunting Legislation

Unfortunately, the legislators are convening in Boise, and doing what they do best. There's a few bills brewing in Boise that concern hunting, and the stench is thick, palpable.

First is Senate Bill 1282, and it may be the lesser of evils. This would allow landowners in the Landowner Appreciation Program to sell their tags to the highest bidder. In exchange for that right, the landowner would have to make his land available to the public for hunting. This is in line with the IF&G's objective to make as much land as possible open for the public. It is in the same spirit as the Access Yes properties, where landowners are either paid, or get some kind of tax break, for allowing the public to hunt on their land. Okay. And many feel that this is a way to curb hefty trespass fees charged by landowners. Okay.

Second is Senate Bill 1283, sponsored by Sen. Siddoway who owns Juniper Mountain, a high fenced, private elk hunting "opportunity," for those with wallets fat enough to afford that sort of monkeying around. This bill allows landowners to sell Landowner Appreciation tags to the highest bidder, but it does not require the landowner to then make his property available to the public. Hmmm. And that is where the stink is coming from. Sen. Siddoway has not replied to my generous email that inquired for further information. IF&G is not supportive of this bill.

Third is Senate Bill 1256. This would establish more Governor's Tags that could be auctioned off to the highest bidder. It's a small amount of tags that could really bring in a hefty load of funding to the IF&G. IF&G does not take a stand one way or the other on this one; they're content to see how it plays out. Hunters are divided. Some see it as a beneficial trade off that could provide the funding for more habitat development, etc., even as IF&G's coffers are pretty empty. Others are disturbed that the rich get to buy their way into the premium hunts, while the average Joe spends his life applying and applying and applying. I am basically in that camp, wanting everyone to play by the same rules. Besides that, it seems like a desperate move to keep an unsustainable government "business" in business. Making something permanent by law in this way isn't wise. Finally, all we can hope for if this does pass, is that the accountability for the program has integrity.

No changes would be best.

There's more. Such as the Idaho Constitutional amendment that would secure hunting and fishing as an indelible right for citizens. Maybe I'll have something to say on that later, but right now I'm burnt out on politics. And it's not even November yet.

The Idaho Statesman reports on the bills here.

~ J. Bunch

Round 1: Sawtooth Elk Zone vs. Teton Elk Zone

This is the seventh installment on a series of posts comparing Idaho's any-weapon, antlered, general season elk hunts. For an intro to this series, go here.

For the first post in this series, read Dworshak Elk Zone vs. Bear River Elk Zone.
For the second post in this series, read Snake River Elk Zone vs. Palisades Elk Zone.
For the third post in this series, read Palouse Elk Zone vs. McCall Elk Zone.
For the fourth post in this series, read Selway Elk Zone vs. Salmon Elk Zone.
For the fifth post in this series, read Panhandle Elk Zone vs.Tex Creek Elk Zone.
For the sixth post in this series, read Middle Fork Elk Zone vs. Dworshak Elk Zone.

Here we go comparing the Sawtooth Elk Zone to the Teton Elk Zone. First up, the Sawtooth.

The Hunt

The A-Tag for the Sawtooth Elk Zone is an archery only season that ran in 2011 from August 30 through September 30.  The B-Tag is what we're primarily  looking at here, as it is the only any-weapon, antlered-only tag.  In 2011, the B-Tag general season ran from October 15 through November 8.  So it is a good long season, just over 3 weeks long.  But there is a quota on the number of B-Tags sold.  The cap is 1,526 tags, and they went on sale to non-residents on 12/1/2010, and to residents on 7/10/2011.


Located in the center of the state, the Sawtooth Elk Zone is a popular getaway for Boise and Twin Falls folks.  The Sawtooth Mountains are a state emblem right next to the potato.  The town of Stanley is the outpost in the middle of the Zone, and Garden Valley is the other one, located on the west end of the Zone.  Just a few hours drive from Boise or Twin Falls has made this a popular place to hunt.

Besides the Sawtooth Mountains, the Stanley Basin is known for its beauty, the Salmon River that runs through it, as do the Middle and South Forks of the Payette River.

The Zone consists of Game Management Units 33, 34, 35, and 36, covering 1,626,045 acres or 2,540 square miles.

Salmon River Area East of Stanley
Garden Valley Area
Unit 33 contains the small town of Garden Valley, with the Middle Fork of the Payette River running vertically through it.  Unit 34 holds Deadwood River and Reservoir on its western side, and the north east corner contains the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness roadless area.  Unit 35 has the South Fork of the Payette River running through it, as well as HWY 21, the main road from Boise to Stanley.  The Sawtooth Wilderness area is on the east side of the unit.  Unit 36 hosts the town of Stanley in its middle, with the Salmon River and HWY 75 extending to the eastern border of the Zone towards Challis.  Southbound HWY 75 goes through the basin to Galena Pass, and over the top towards Ketchum/Sun Valley.  The Sawtooth Wilderness sits on the southwest side of the unit, and the Frank Church Wilderness extends down into the northwest corner of the unit.

Terrain/Land Ownership

As for the terrain, you might generally call it mountainous.  The Sawtooth Mountains peak out at elevations above 10,000 ft.  Fingers extending west from the Sawtooths maintain 8,000 ft. on the ridge tops, and then dive down steepley to 6,000 ft. into the drainages.  East of the Sawtooths, across the basin, the terrain is a little more tame, but the further north you go, the mountains get more rugged, where elevations stick in the 7,000 - 8,000 ft. range.  The Garden Valley area sits a little less high in the 4,000 - 6,000 ft. range, but those elevations rise the further east you travel.
92% of the ground is considered forested, and 5% is considered rangeland.  Livestock grazing is minimal in the Zone.  Most of the Zone is mountainous, and well forested.  But there is a good continual mix of open and wooded areas that generally make this Zone pleasant to hunt.  Thus its popularity.  It is steep in areas, but more tame than the Middle Fork Elk Zone, and some of the wilder wilderness areas.
The wilderness areas are obviously more remote with their roadless areas, yet the area around Garden Valley has plenty of roads to get you around on.  The Zone really has a little bit for every kind of hunter.  If you are a do-it-yourself kind of person who likes to hike in several miles where there is guaranteed to be no other traffic, you can have it in the Sawtooth Zone.

If you like to road hunt, well, there's that too.  
94% of the land in the Zone is public, 3% is private, and the remainder is State of Idaho and BLM.  No issues finding a place to hunt and camp here.

Herd Health/Stats

Lots to talk about here.  In the mid to late 1800's trappers, hunters, and miners decimated the elk and deer population in this area.  In 1909, the Idaho Legislature decided to help the game population recover, and they established the South Fork Game Preserve in Unit 35.  No hunting occurred in the Zone until 1945, and the Preserve lasted until 1977.  The deer herd rebounded quickly, and by the late '70's, the elk herd had rebounded as well.  The elk numbers peaked in the early '90's at over 7,000 elk.  Less than half that exists now.

The desire is to manage this elk herd at relatively high numbers.  IF&G would love to have 750 bulls harvested from it every year.  That is a lofty goal.  Right now the sustainable bull harvest has to be equal or less than 250 bulls.  But IF&G wants to see the herd rebound again, balanced only by its concerns about winter feeding grounds.

The wintering areas are in a mess around the Garden Valley area, where rush skeleton weed has infested the south and west facing slopes, making those thousands of acres useless as winter feeding areas.  IF&G implements winter feeding programs approximately two years out of every five.

Bulls have been over-harvested in the past, and in 2010, the IF&G stated that more bulls are being harvested than are being recruited.  Calf recruitment has generally been in the dumps.  More on that in a minute.  Tag quotas are now a 46% reduction from the 2008 season.

As for predation issues, the Big 3 (bears, mt. lions, and wolves) are all well established in the Zone.  Bear and mountain lions most certainly are elk predators, but the extent of their predation is not known.  Wolves, however, are to blame for the declining elk herd in the Sawtooth Zone.  In many cases, such as with the Selway Elk Zone, the IF&G will acknowledge that wolves are present, that they are a threat to the elk population, but the extent of the damage done by wolves is not fully known.  But with the Sawtooth Zone, the IF&G makes no bones about it.  Wolves are a huge issue here.

In 2009 there were more than 12 packs that were well established.  And here's the bit on calf recruitment, and it appears to be tied with wolves.  In 2008 and 2009, calf recruitment rates were drastically low.  In 2010, the year following the first legal wolf hunt in Idaho, calf recruitment rates spiked up.  It will be interesting to compare calf recruitment rates after this wolf hunting season to see if 2010 was an anomaly, or if the wolf hunts may be helping in some way.  As of 2/9/2011, 20 wolves have been harvested in the Sawtooth Zone this season.

In 2008, a winter survey was taken.  2,696 cows were counted (objective is to have 3,050 - 4,550), and 251 bulls were counted (objective is to have 600 - 975).  Of those 251 bulls, 82 mature bulls were counted (objective is to have 355 - 575 mature bulls).  Objectives are not being met, and hunter numbers have consequently declined as well, from around 6,000 in 2006 to less than 3,000 in 2010.

Here's how the stats line up.  The only wrinkle in these stats is that Unit 34 has no data, as it was not surveyed.  Elk population survey used for this was 2008.  I think these numbers are fairly close to reality, however.

Elk/Square Mile: 1.2
Hunters/Square Mile: 0.9
Bulls/Square Mile: 0.10
Average Hunter Days: 5.24
Bull Harvest Percentage:  12%
Percent Spikes Harvested: 42%
Percent 6+ points Harvested: 20%

Teton Elk Zone

The Hunt

The any-weapon, antlered-only hunt for the Teton Zone ran from October 15, 2011 to October 21, 2011 on the B-Tag.  Archery seasons lasted from 8/30 - 9/30, and the A-Tag also had an any-weapon, anterless-only season from 10/22 - 11/15.  We will only be focusing on the B-Tag here.


The Teton Zone is squeezed in between the Island Park Elk Zone on the north, and the Palisades Elk Zone on the south.  Starting in Sugar City, the border follows HWY 20 up to Ashton, then northeast up through Warm River and to Yellowstone National Park's boundary.  The border then goes south on the Wyoming - Idaho border down to HWY 31, and then jogs up to the town of Victor.  From Victor the border follows HWY 31 west out of town until it decides to cut off a chunk of the Big Hole Mountains from the Palisades Zone.  After taking that watershed for itself, it meets up with HWY 33, and heads west back to Sugar City.

The Teton Zone is located northeast of Idaho Falls, a roughly 45 minute drive from Idaho Falls to Ashton on HWY 20.  Home to rolling malt barley and seed potato fields (Ashton is the seed potato capital of the world), the rolling hills give way to the foothills of the Tetons on the east.  Waking up to sunrise over the Tetons is just one bonus to hunting here.

Terrain/Land Ownership

First, let's talk about where you can hunt in this Zone.  75% of the land here is private, and 24% is BLM and USFS.  In a Zone that consists of just 457,617 acres (715 square miles), only about 112,000 acres are on public ground.

There are two primary places to hunt in the Teton Zone.
The first one is in the USFS land along the Wyoming border.  Basically, unlike the east side of the Tetons where the mountains rise straight up 15 million feet from the valley floor, the west side has foothills that gently rise up to where the rocky crags of the Tetons take over.  Those foothills spill across the Idaho border for several miles.  But it isn't far.  Several miles might be generous.  This strip of USFS land that is huntable stretches from Warm River on the north down nearly to Driggs.

Believe me, it doesn't take long to find yourself in Wyoming, so do take caution.  Those foothills spilling into Idaho are essentially canyons running east-west with creeks in the bottom.  And they are well timbered.  It is pretty thick in there.  That's not to say that there isn't any breathing room at all; there are meadows here and there.  But be prepared for hunting dark timber.

The second area to hunt in this Zone is in the mountains west of Victor and Driggs, as well as in the tiny corner south of HWY 31, east of Victor.  This area of USFS land adds an element of variety.  On the whole, it is probably steeper than the area along the Wyoming border, but it is a good mix of open sagebrush, dark timber, and aspen stands.  The terrain is very similar to the Palisades Elk Zone, which borders the Teton Zone just to the south.

Herd Health/Stats

Herd health.  Herd health?  What herd?  Yeah, there's sort of a

herd here.  There has always been an elk presence in the Zone.  There has to be.  It just looks like an elky kind of place.  But the elk presence is really dependent upon weather.  Elk summer in the high elevations of the Big Hole Mountains, and work there way down as fall and winter approach.  On the north and eastern parts of the Zone, the elk have to be pushed into the area by lots of snow where they summer in Wyoming and in Yellowstone National Park.

Weather and winter range are the two factors that determine elk presence.  There is very little winter range for the elk.  The elevation in the Teton Valley is about 6,000 ft., and huntable areas on USFS land generally rise to about 7,000 ft.  So this is a high elevation Zone that gets a lot of snowfall, and often extreme temperatures.

Winter feeding stations are no longer in use, but have consistently been used in the past.  This has created dependent elk, too many elk for the real habitat during the winter.  Agricultural expansion in the past century, and recent residential development near Victor and Driggs have also taken up rare wintering areas.  What wintering areas are left are usually ran over by recreational snowmobiles in the winter.  Elk like the woods to be a quiet place.  Snowmobiles aren't quiet.

The most recent winter survey in 2006 counted 173 cows, 125 bulls (of which, 95 were mature bulls).  Objectives are to maintain 150-250 cows, 35-55 bulls (of which, 15-35 should be mature).  Just not a lot of action here.  Approximately 50-60 elk winter SE of Victor, and they usually show up late-winter.  Approximately 130 elk retreat from the Big Hole Mts. west of Victor and Driggs, and winter along the Teton River in the basin.  Then there's usually a couple of other small groups that descend from Yellowstone.  All of this movement is generally after the Oct. 15 - Oct. 21 general season hunt.

Predation probably is insignificant compared to the weather issues.  IF&G says there is a moderate and stable black bear population.  I have a hard time believing that it is anything but a high population, especially in the timbered areas.  Mt. Lions are rare.  Grizzlies are increasing in population, and spreading.  Several attacks happened near Driggs/Victor/Jackson in the past year.  There are 3 established wolf packs that call the Teton Zone part of their territory, and undoubtedly do have some affect on the elk, but how much exactly is unknown.

So, the stats; brace yourself:

Elk/Square Mile: 0.42
Hunters/Square Mile: 0.15
Bulls/Square Mile: 0.17
Average Hunter Days: 5.2
Bull Harvest Percentage:  5%
Percent Spikes Harvested: 0%
Percent 6+ points Harvested: 50%

Analysis & The Winner 

The winner is the Sawtooth Zone.  But this was an exercise in comparing two of Idaho's dud Elk Zones.  Wolves have made the Sawtooth Zone pretty tough to hunt, especially if you head very far east of Garden Valley.  There just isn't the herd that there once was.  Hopefully a successful wolf season will help calf recruitment there.

The Teton Zone could be doable.  It's the kind of place that is weather-depending.  If the high elevations get heavy snow in early October, the elk will start heading down.  Some big bulls have been harvested here, and the cow to bull ratio from surveys shows that a lot of big bulls come down.  So there is a chance.  But it's too chancy.  If I had to plan a hunt, and had to choose between these two, I would take the Sawtooth Zone, get away from where the elk are heavily pressured, and roll the dice.  At least there I wouldn't have to worry about turning the corner and finding some mama grizzly glaring at me.

~ J. Bunch

2 Headed Trout in SE Idaho - Simplot Selenium Pollution

Trout deformities have been popping up in SE Idaho creeks that sit underneath Simplot's Smoky Canyon Phosphate Mine.  There would appear to be a connection to selenium pollution.

Simplot's goal of maintaining no more that 22 parts per million of selenium in creek water is often exceeded, according to an independent environmental report, and the two-headed trout is the most eye-popping of the deformities.

Naturally, Simplot officials aren't taking any responsibility, but they are stating that they will be working closely with the State of Idaho and the feds in regard to pollution.  In other words, they give stock, corporate, politically-correct answers when pushed on the issue.

Selenium pollution in waters near phosphate mines in SE Idaho has been blamed for hundreds of livestock deaths.

The concern over the trout is not only the current deformities being found, but by in-migrating trout that will take over habitat that was once occupied by non-reproductive, selenium poisoned trout.  If selenium is to blame, but its pollution isn't strictly regulated, a sink hole for trout could be created.

The Jackson Hole News & Guide has the fuller story here.

~ J. Bunch

Game Management & The Idaho - Montana Divide

Jefferson County, MT ranchers want to institute a county bounty program for wolves.  You can read all about that here at the Billings Gazette.

If you remember, I suggested that the issue of bounties should be revisited in this post back in December.  I knew that sooner or later bounties would enter the discussion amongst those fed up with wolves.

But a county bounty program seems problematic for several reasons, one of which is that there can be a lot of fraud with bounties.  I don't know how a county could provide bounties without getting taken advantage of.  If a hunter kills a wolf in Madison County, and then trucks it to Jefferson County to get the cash, who would know?

Jefferson County Commissioners are against the idea, but a majority of ranchers in favor of it could force the county into action.  Besides commissioners, sportsmen are speaking out against it.

"What?!?" was my initial thought.  I thought there must be a mistake.  Consider this from the article:

Three men who describe themselves as avid hunters and houndsmen said that while they're not big fans of wolves -- and all three were part of the 18,000 people who bought a $19 permit this year to shoot one -- they want the commission to cut FWP and the federal government some slack when it comes to managing wolves. This is only the second year that wolf hunting has been legal in Montana.

"Give them the chance to learn about this, and let the process work a little bit," said Josh Pallister. "It's not that I love wolves, but we are uneducated about them."
While discussing this with some fine folks over at OYOA's Hunt Talk Forum (where there is a wealth of information for do-it-yourself adventures), the sentiment of Montana sportsmen seems to be consistent with the quote above.  Give Montana FWP a break.  Cut the feds some slack.  We don't know exactly how much damage the wolves do to the elk.  We need to take wolf management slow, and act reasonably.  Etc., etc.

It wasn't what I expected.  There appears to be a divide in the thinking between Idaho and Montana sportsmen.  Most Idahoans I know would rather take a stick to the feds.  Cutting the feds "some slack" doesn't even register.  And that's just generally speaking.  On the issue of wolves, the sentiment runs deeper and more volatile.

Montana wants to manage game with predators.  Idaho wants to manage game with hunters.  Consider this from the Montana Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife website on how MT & ID differ on wolf management:

  • Wolves on a quota.
  • NO Trapping
  • NO baiting
  • NO snaring
  • NO electronic calls
  • One tag per year.
  • Gun season runs from October 22- Dec 31
  • non resident fee $350.00
  • Must wear Orange
  • Trapping YES Nov 15 thru March 31
  • Baiting YES
  • Snaring YES
  • Electronic calls YES
  • Gun Season runs from Aug 30 till June 30.
  • Wolves can be killed during spring bear season.
  • Each person may kill up to 5 wolves per year between trapping and hunting
  • You can put a deer tag or elk tag on a wolf during the general hunting season
  • Non resident tags are $31.75 each
  • NO Orange 
It is quite true that we don't have all of the data on what role the wolves play in the ecology.  They are still somewhat of a mystery.  But we got rid of them once in Idaho because ranchers and sportsmen wanted them gone.  Idaho still feels the same way, and even more so this time because of the fact that the feds forced them down our throat.

While Montana dilly dallies around trying so hard to stay out of the fed's doghouse (where WY has been), Idaho is getting busy by at least trying to take out one of the predators that is harming, to some extent, declining elk populations.  I find that comforting, and I hope that it is not the case that Idaho sees a lot of non-resident hunters coming over from MT in 5 years.

~ J. Bunch

It's February. Pray For Mule Deer Fawns

Fawn survival and recruitment is the key to healthy mule deer populations, and it's not an easy thing to achieve in Idaho.  Fawns have a rough time of it, and who knows what kind of a winter will be in store from year to year.  Fortunately, we have had a mild winter so far.  But just as challenging is the job of the wildlife biologists to predict survival, and then propose harvest limits for a specific management area.

Recruitment generally describes when a fawn has made it to its first birthday.  Just getting there means that the mule deer has made it through two critical periods of life.  The first critical period is generally June and July.  Those are the first two months after birth when the little guys and gals are getting their feet wet, and are the obvious target for predators.

If they can survive those months, the next challenge they will have is late winter, generally February to April.  This is when the fat reserves are put to the test.  Fawns survive less so than more mature deer during this time period because adults are better able to put on fat during the summer and fall.  Less fat means less energy, so malnutrition causes the fawns to become all the more vulnerable to predation and to the elements.

When comparing fawn survival rates between game management units, the big factors are habitat condition, predation, competition of feed, and herd density between those units.  If the habitat can only feed so many mule deer, and the herd is too big for the habitat capacity, and the elk are needing the same feed, and the wolves are surrounding the camp - you have a recipe for disaster, and the fawns are the first to get left out. 

The weather may be identical in another unit, but if the habitat is better, the carrying capacity isn't abused, and predation isn't as prevalent, the survival rates will be higher.

But from year to year in a given area, weather is the biggest factor.  An unusually cold and wet fall and/or winter only brings on malnutrition quicker.  

So how do Idaho's game managers set season harvest limits?  First, they do what studies they can on particular mule deer populations, but by January, they have to propose something to the Fish and Game Commission.  Season dates and harvest limits are then set in March.  That means the dates and limits are set before the results of the studies can be observed in April, May, and June, as the fawns escape winter's clutches, or not.

Monitoring winter survival is tough, and the biologists do what they can with modeling, but nothing is perfect.  It's not difficult to get mule deer populations in big trouble really fast.  A couple years of too liberal harvest quotas, followed by a couple of years of drastic weather, and a particular population could be in big trouble.

It's a volatile situation for the fawns for obvious reasons.  And it's volatile for the IF&G who has to answer to sportsmen and the public for any missteps.

~ J. Bunch

Upcoming IF&G Public Meetings

Don't just moan and cry on internet discussion boards.  Help destroy that perception, along with the other one that may be more true of the majority of hunters - hunter apathy.

Anyway, here's your chance at something more.  IF&G will be holding these public info meetings:

Idaho Falls, 2/28/2012, 7 PM, Idaho Falls IF&G Regional Office

Rexburg, 3/1/2012, 7 PM, Madison Middle School Media Center

Grangeville, 2/27/2012, 5 PM, Senior Citizen Center

Moscow, 2/29/2012, 5 PM, Latah County Fairgrounds Exhibit Building

Orofino, 3/1/2012, 5 PM, IF&G Clearwater Hatchery

Lewiston, 3/8/2012, 5 PM, Lewistion IF&G Region Office

~ J. Bunch

Deer & Elk Outlook For 2012

In case you missed what IF&G officials reported to the Commission recently, here is the low-down from IF&G website:

Deer and elk numbers are meeting management objectives in most parts of the state, but some hunter numbers are down slightly, Fish and Game officials told the Idaho Fish and Game Commission Thursday, January 26.

Female elk numbers meet or exceed objectives in 21 of 29 elk management zones; they are below objectives in eight zones. Bull elk meet or exceed objectives in 20 zones and are below objectives in nine.

Fish and Game plans to conducting aerial surveys in the Panhandle, Elk City, Brownlee, Weiser and Pioneer zones this winter to update elk herd information.

Mule deer exceed management objectives for buck to doe ratio. All population management units exceed 15 bucks per 100 does. From mid-December to mid-January, Fish and Game biologists captured and radio-collared 277 mule deer, including 195 fawns, in 20 game management units. They are now monitoring 796 radio-marked mule deer in 39 units in 12 population management units as part of annual mule deer survival monitoring effort.

Dry conditions and the unusually open winter statewide so far this year, have led Fish and Game to change its aerial survey plans because deer are spread widely rather than confined to typical winter range.

Aerial surveys are planned or underway to estimate populations in Smoky-Bennett, western part of Central Mountains, and Island Park Population Management Unit. Mountain Valley has been postponed until next year.

Harsh winter conditions last year resulted in the lowest over-winter fawn survival, at 32 percent, and since Fish and Game began monitoring in 1998-99.

Adult doe mortality was as high as 26-36 percent in four eastern Idaho population management units.

In response to mule deer monitoring results last year, antlerless hunt tags and some buck hunt tags were reduced. Because of low survival of fawns, a lower buck harvest was predicted for 2011 - few yearling two-points were available.

It's too early to tell how the mulies will fare this winter, but Fish and Game hopes to get a better idea from the fawns biologists recently captured and radio-collared.

White-tailed deer also are meeting management objectives for buck harvest throughout the state.

All whitetail data analysis units are meeting management plan objectives for buck harvest and percent of five-points in the harvest. Unit 4 was slightly below objectives for hunter number and hunter days, but whitetails are not the major focus for hunters in these units.

Whitetail numbers have been improving since the losses during 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 winters in the northern part of state. So far the outlook is positive for good numbers next fall.

No formal population surveys were conducted for whitetails.

Fish and Game managers will bring proposed 2012 deer and elk seasons to the Idaho Fish and Game Commission in late March.

The Clearwater Region has set four open house meetings to discuss proposed changes to the 2012 big game season. All meetings will be from 5 to 7 p.m.

  • Monday, February 27, Senior Citizens Center, County Road, Grangeville.
  • Wednesday, February 29, Latah County Fairground Exhibit Bldg, 1021 Harold, Moscow.
  • Thursday, March 1, Fish and Game Clearwater Hatchery, 18 Hatchery Roe Drive (downstream of the North Fork Clearwater River), Orofino.
  • Thursday, March 8, Fish and Game regional office, 3316 16th St., Lewiston.
That news was pretty much to be expected.  Hopes are that the rest of the winter will be animal-friendly.

I'm sure there will be more detailed information coming down soon.  Stay tuned.

~ J. Bunch

Facebook Contest Winning Photo

Travis Olsen was the lucky winner in January's photo contest on Idaho Man's Facebook page.  The prize was a year subscription to Extreme Elk Magazine, a new magazine focusing on DIY elk hunting.  Stay tuned for the February contest rules and prizes.

Here's the shot, a beautiful sunrise over Mt. McCaleb near Mackay, ID:

Congratulations, Travis!  

~ J. Bunch

Idaho Elk: A Perfect Storm Of Polemics

In pitting the polemics of two different views against each other, sometimes the truth seems to be lost, sifted carelessly down to the ground between the two poles.

Talk to ranchers and sportsmen, and you'll quickly find that they want every wolf in the world dead. Incidentally, I'm pretty much on board with that. I've never been a canine fan anyway. I see wolves as just overgrown coyotes, i.e. - nuisances.

Now, of course, I don't want every wolf in the world dead. I just want the ones that were introduced into Idaho by the federal government to be dead, gone, poof. Why? Well, we had wolves in the past, but we annihilated them effectively with a bounty program. We did that because we did not want them around, plain and simple. They were nuisances to ranchers, sportsmen, and the general public. We didn't want wolves any more than we wanted cockroaches. That's true for today too.

But the polemics of sportsmen often include the argument that the wolves are entirely to blame for the state's declining elk herds, at least, and they may say it includes moose and deer as well. And the facts are there if you look at the numbers. At the same time wolves were introduced and becoming established in Idaho, Idaho's elk herd populations plummeted, especially in the areas where the wolves were given their new homes. Clearly, then, wolves are the cause of the evil.

For instance, in 1989 the Lolo Zone in North-Central Idaho held somewhere nears 17,000 head of elk. Today, that number is less than 2,500. Wolf packs there are what the IF&G would call "well established."

On the other pole, environmentalists and wolf-lovers argue that the wolves do such an insignificant predation on the elk there, that it hardly deserves mentioning, and their polemics throw accusations at those who say otherwise. Ranchers and sportsmen are just ignorant when it comes to environmental and ecological issues. In fact, most of them probably wonder if ranchers and sportsman even know what "ecological" means; it is a big word, after all.

The truth is that a lot of the sportsmen I talk to, while they may know some principles of ecology, don't know how bad the habitat just so happens to be in the same areas where the elk populations have declined dramatically. The Lolo, the Selway, and much of North Idaho, places where wolves are "well established," also have some of the worst elk habitat in the state.

It hasn't always been that way, though. Massive forest fires earlier in the 20th Century created excellent habitat in those places. And current fire suppression management activities by the Forest Service have helped to prevent that from happening again. So can we just blame everything on the federal government? Sure, I'm fine with that, but I digress.

The bottom line is that there is a perfect storm of factors that has led to declining elk populations in Idaho. It's not just one factor - wolves, or another - habitat loss. It's both. And both sides in the debate would do well to drop their strict polemics and realize that.

~ J. Bunch

Round 1: Middle Fork Elk Zone vs. Dworshak Elk Zone

This is the sixth installment on a series of posts comparing Idaho's any-weapon, antlered, general season elk hunts. For an intro to this series, go here.

For the first post in this series, read Dworshak Elk Zone vs. Bear River Elk Zone.
For the second post in this series, read Snake River Elk Zone vs. Palisades Elk Zone.
For the third post in this series, read Palouse Elk Zone vs. McCall Elk Zone.
For the fourth post in this series, read Selway Elk Zone vs. Salmon Elk Zone.
For the fifth post in this series, read Panhandle Elk Zone vs.Tex Creek Elk Zone.

Here we go comparing the Middle Fork Elk Zone to the Dworshak Elk Zone. First up, the The Middle Fork.

The Hunt

The season dates for the general season elk hunts in the Middle Fork Zone (Units 20A, 26, and 27) are pretty exciting.  Like the Selway Zone, there is an early season when the bulls are dead in the middle of their rut.  In 2011, you had to choose between the  A-tag or the B-tag.  

The A-tag ran from Oct. 1 - Oct. 31, and was any antlered elk in Units 20A & 26.  In Unit 27, only brow-tined bulls may have been harvested.  There were only 647 tags available for this hunt, and they went on sale as a first-come-first-served basis, first for non-residents on 12/1/10 and for residents on 7/10/11.

The B-tag ran from Sep. 15 - Sep. 30, and the rules were the same as described above for the A-tag: any antlered bull in Units 20A & 26, and brow-tined only in Unit 27.  The B-tag also had a second season, Nov. 1 - Nov. 18, with the same rules as above.  1,636 B-tags was the quota, and they were first-come-first-served as described above.


The Middle Fork Zone sits sandwiched between the Selway Wilderness on the north, the Salmon Elk Zone on the east, the Sawtooth Elk Zone to the south, and the McCall Elk Zone on the west.  This is primitive Idaho at its finest.  Wanting to get away from it all?  This is big and wild country, and it rivals
the Selway Elk Zone in that regard.  36% of the Zone lies within the Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness.

Access to the Zone is limited.  While it is not all designated wilderness area, roads are not plenteous going in or out.  You can access the area by going through Yellowpine or Challis, and a few other places on Forest Service roads.  But a big part of planning to go hunt the Middle Fork Zone is determining where you want to go, and how to get in and out.  Most folks will suggest horses, at least.  Flying in is also an option, along with choosing the right guide and/or outfitter.  Backpacking in is also an option, but, as we shall see shortly, this is rugged territory.

Terrain/Land Ownership

The terrain is mountainous.  River bottoms will be found at 4,000 - 4,500 ft. in elevation, and mountain tops will easily peak out above 9,000 ft.  I would say that the average draw to ridgetop elevations will be between 6,000 ft. to
8,000 ft., and it is mostly ridge after ridge after ridge of the same beautiful, remote country, over and over again.  Bring a compass.  You will feel small.

As I said earlier, a big chunk (36%) of the Zone is wilderness.  The remainder is USFS.  There is virtually no private ground here, and very little of it is used for livestock grazing.  Once you get in, the only thing limiting where or how you hunt will be your own legs (or your horse's).  But don't let me scare you off entirely.  This hunt is doable, and exciting.  It offers hunts during the peak of the rut, but you must be able to track down that bull that you heard bugle over the next ridge.  It's tough, but for the guys who are in good shape, the terrain can be more of a
motivating challenge.  Even if you pack in on horses, you'll have to leave the horses to stalk elk, and when you do, there will be some serious uphill-downhill hiking.

The Zone consists of 1,846,323 acres, or 2,885 square miles.

Heard Health/Stats

Earlier in the 20th Century, elk were not very numerous here.  It wasn't until the 1970's that the elk population really took off and established itself.  The population continued to grow until about 10-15 years ago.  Many will point out immediately that wolf introduction happened at about the same time.  This is true, and the wolves definitely have had an impact on the heard health.  But habitat is just as much, and probably much more, of a factor.

Fire suppression management is the big one.  The Forest Service manages virtually 100% of this Zone, so they are the ones to blame one way or another.  As we all know, forest fires produce excellent elk habitat.  Efforts to minimize the fires hurt the elk habitat.  Specifically in this Zone, elk populations have risen and fallen in direct parallel to fire activity.  

Units 20A & 26 have seen their elk herds decrease dramatically in the last 10-15 years, but Unit 27 hasn't been as drastic.  Herds there increased up until 8-10 years ago, and since then there has been a steady decrease.  In Unit 27, bull to cow ratios are very low, and this has been a result of poor calf production.  Yes, the habitat is a big issue, but the observed herd health in Unit 27 shows that predators are taking a toll as well.

Black bear numbers are low and steady.  Mountain lion populations are high.  Wolves are well established.  IF&G managers see the wolves as being potentially very helpful to the herd's health by keeping elk populations below habitat capacity.  But that's not a point you'd want to try to prove at the bar in Challis while talking with other hunters.  It's debatable.  On the issue of wolves, I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle.  The wolves are hurting the elk, no doubt.  But there is a perfect storm right now of decreasing habitat and increasing wolves.  The ideal, for the hunter, is increasing habitat and decreasing wolves - obviously.

Objectives are to maintain between 3,850 - 5,750 cows, 950 - 1,550 bulls (of which 600 - 900 should be mature bulls).  The 2006 survey counted 5,137 cows, and 834 bulls (of which 450 were mature bulls).  2010 was the last year that anterless elk hunts were conducted in the Zone.  But antleress harvests were minimal, and it had no significant impact on the herd health.  The main
objective is to increase cows in Units 20A and 26, and to increase bull numbers in all of the Zone.
Here's the stats.  2006 survey data was used, and I have little doubt that the population levels have decreased since then.  2010 data was used for the harvest records.  So the stats below are probably a little optimistic, but well within reason.

Elk/Square Mile: 2.0
Hunters/Square Mile: 0.4
Bulls/Square Mile: 0.29
Average Hunter Days: 5.9
Bull Harvest Percentage:  13%
Percent Spikes Harvested: 5%
Percent 6+ points Harvested: 57%

Dworshak Elk Zone

I've described the Dworshak Elk Zone here.  So go there and read about it, and then come back here to see which Zone I think gives you the better chance at harvesting a bull.

Analysis & The Winner

Elk per square mile is basically the same for both the Dworshak and the Middle Fork.  Hunters per square mile is much different, however.  There is considerably less pressure in the Middle Fork's remote wilderness, with 0.4 hunters per square mile there compared to 1.4 in the Dworshak Zone.  Bulls per square mile is similar between the two Zones, with Dworhak only being slightly higher.  

The kinds of bulls harvested finds the two Zones on opposite ends, and much of that has to do with the brow-tined only restrictions in Unit 27.  In the Middle Fork, 5% of the harvest is spikes, while 57% are 6-pointers or better.  In the Dworshak Zone, 42% are spikes, while only 15% have six points or better.  In the end, however, the bottom line stat is this.  In the Middle Fork, you have a 13% chance of filling your tag, while in the Dworshak Zone, that decreases to 7%.

Bull numbers are down in both Zones.  But the odds of you finding a really decent one reside in the Middle Fork.  The Middle Fork's terrain is certainly more difficult to hunt in, but on the other hand, it offers a lot more glassing/spot and stalk opportunities.  

In the end, as difficult as it may be to get into the Middle Fork's wilderness, the odds of harvesting a bull are greater there.  The vistas are rewarding too.  And if you make an elk trip there, I'm certain it will be an adventure to remember.  Middle Fork Elk Zone is the winner!

~ J. Bunch

Friday Roundup & Some Things To Come

Here's a few things to get you through your weekend, and a look forward to some things coming down the pipeline for next week.

First, I'm giving away a free subscription to Extreme Elk Magazine via a Facebook contest.  Let me make it easy for you, all you have to do is go here, befriend me, and post a hunting, fishing, or outdoors photo on my wall.  The person with the most likes before the deadline on Jan. 31, 2012, will win the magazine subscription.  The only rule is that the photo must be taken in Idaho, unless you're an out of state Idaho enthusiast who can't come up with that sort of thing.  In that case, take a picture of yourself holding a map of the State of Idaho in a pub or something.

Second, wolves.  Alex Sakariassen of the Missoula Independent wrote an interesting piece on how the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department is doing on their study of the elk herd reduction in Montana's Clark Fork region.  While wolves are generally to blame, they are finding just as many, or more, elk kills from mountain lions.  Guides, outfitters, ranchers are skeptical, and no matter the results of the study, they wish the wolves were gone.

On the other hand, federal agencies in Colorado have not ruled out the possibility of introducing wolves to control an elk population that is allegedly out of control.  You can imagine who is taking sides down there, and you can read all about the foolishness here.

Meanwhile, Idahoans are doing what they can to reduce the wolf population.  As of today, 202 (16 more than on Jan. 11) wolves have been killed with a firearm, and 59 (17 more than on Jan. 11) have been trapped.  Trapping in the Selway Wilderness appears to be more effective than hunting wolves with a firearm.

If you need help finding a wolf to kill, there are a couple of gents out there who are mapping wolf sightings.  One is here, and the other is here.  If you see a wolf, wolf tracks, wolf droppings, wolf kills, or wolf eyes glowing back at you on the edge of the woods, I'm sure those guys would love your report.

Coming up next week - 

A look at hunting OTC, general season elk in the Middle Fork Zone.  You won't want to miss that.

Also, I'm hoping to interview somebody knowledgeable and experienced when it comes to grizzlies in Idaho's wild.  It seems that there was a record this last year of grizzly attacks both in Idaho and in Montana.  I'm wanting some grizzly stories that will have you going to sleep with a can of bear spray next to your bed.

Have a good weekend.  Thanks for reading my posts, and all of the kind comments.

~ J. Bunch

Facebook Contest & Giveaway! - Prize: Subscription To Extreme Elk Magazine

Befriend me on Facebook.  Then enter the contest:

Contest & Giveaway: Post an Idaho hunting, fishing, or outdoors photo on Idahoman's Facebook page.  Then get all of your friends to "like" your photo.  The person with the most "likes" wins a 1 - year subscription to Extreme Elk Magazine, including an elk hunting DVD.  Contest ends at midnight on 1/31/12!

You can check out the prize at Extreme Elk Magazine.
The photo submitted must have been taken in Idaho!

Or, if you have no such picture in Idaho, you can take a picture of yourself holding an Idaho map in a pub or outdoors.  Fair enough for you out-of-staters?

~ J. Bunch

Place: Hidden Springs, Idaho

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