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Winds of Change: County’s elk herd at a crossroads

The morning breeze has turned crisp around Grangeville.  The birch leaves, now donning their fall colors are torn from the limbs by a wind that whispers with every gust of a coming winter. There is an unmistakable bustle about town. Local businesses are preparing for travelers from near and far as we sit at the cusp of an event that is a yearly ritual for our community: 

The beginning of elk season. 

 In our area, elk hunting is something much deeper than a regular sport or pastime; it’s a tradition handed down from generation to generation — fathers teaching their sons and daughters the joy of the hunt. Businesses, many of which have been handed down as well, waiting on the lifeblood that Oct. 10 brings. For decades the story has remained steadfastly the same for us, but for the elk, fortunes have changed dramatically.

Recent years have seen a steady decline in our once fabled elk herds. The ambitious logging projects of the mid-20th century, responsible for the habitat improvement that created the largest elk population boom in recorded history, are but a distant memory. Old, broken sawyers are the only evidence that remains of the mountain pastures that have now grown thick and impenetrable. Most recently, the reintroduction of the controversial northern wolf has put a stranglehold on our elk. In some circles, the wolf’s reputation as an apex hunter and elk herd reduction specialist remains in dispute, but around Grangeville we all know that truth when it’s staring us in the face.

I haven’t run across a hunter who hasn’t said, “I wish the elk hunting was like it was when I was a kid.” Many of my friends have traveled out of state to find elk hunting success. While I applaud their good fortune, I’m also saddened it was necessary to leave home to find it. We live on the edge of one of the largest unbroken wilderness areas in the lower 48. That kind of vast, lightly-treaded country should produce burgeoning elk numbers. (Obviously, human encroachment isn’t the problem.)

Yet it doesn’t, and more and more of us find ourselves in Wyoming or Montana trying to find some semblance of what we knew when we were young and full of beans.

So the question remains, what can we do to improve the fortunes of our elk herds? After all, we are the stewards of our homeland. Whether it’s our fault or not, the burden of a solution remains on our shoulders. Unfortunately, sacrifice may be our only answer. Idaho is known as one of the last locations to obtain over-the-counter elk tags. We all love chasing a musky bull elk every fall, but we may be reaching a time when that’s no longer feasible if we want to make a difference. I’ll go on record as saying, “I do not like the idea.” Ask yourself though, would you be willing to forego one year’s hunt, knowing you’ll have the opportunity next year to traipse around on your favorite mountain and see a herd or two of elk on a regular basis, instead of just by happenstance? I know I would.

I wouldn’t look forward to our annual elk hunt being reduced to a draw. It would impact our local businesses negatively and local sportsmen would be picking a lot of thorns out of their seats. I do believe, however, that we could adjust. There would still be opportunities to fill the freezer with depredation hunts and businesses would recover as the quality of the elk hunting recovers.

Point restrictions could be another option to bring to the table. There is evidence of success with this form of management in states like Arizona. Maybe a system that employs a combination of spike/rag horn and trophy bull tags would be successful in our area. This would give hunters, who care little about antler size, the chance to hunt more frequently and those willing to wait for larger, more mature bulls would have opportunities as well.

Another entity caught between a rock and a hard place in this debate is the Idaho Fish and Game. They are on the front line of this issue and are making the critical decisions in hopes that our elk herds will rebound. Trust me; they would be ecstatic to see elk hunter success rates improve from one out of every 10. The hurdle here is that the IDFG is funded by license and tag sales. They’ve already seen sales reduced dramatically as nonresident hunters are now looking for greener elk hunting pastures than Idaho has to offer. Any reduction in tag numbers would further hinder their ability to fight the cause. I do believe though, in the long run, that the IDFG would recover just like our local businesses. Big bull elk bring big dollars. If we can start producing them again, the people will return, bolstering our local economies and infusing the IDFG with much needed resources to do their part.

It’s a complicated issue and I expect any ideas like these to be met with stiff resistance. We’ve gotten so used to our annual foray into the elk woods that by no means are we going to welcome the thought of change. This is our home though and these are our traditions. If we are to pass down the love of elk hunting, we have to make every attempt to leave our herds in a better state than they are today. The greatest crime would be for our children to never experience elk hunting like it was when we were sprouts ourselves. 

Larry Hatter is a resident of Grangeville.


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