Idaho Fish and Game is fired up about increasing elk populations in its Lolo Elk Zone in the headwaters of the Clearwater River. Through a cooperative effort with Forest Service and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the two agencies and RMEF are proposing controlled forest fires known as “prescribed-fire treatments” to improve habitat for elk and other wildlife.

Officials with the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests want to use them to burn more than 100,000 acres over several years, particularly in the remote backcountry areas where once-prime elk habitat has grown into dense forests that provide little or no forage for animals.

“That seems like a lot, but it’s only 3 percent of the land area on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests,” said Forest Supervisor Cheryl Probert.

While a small percentage of the forest will be treated, prescribed fire can provide a big boost for elk.

“We’re trying to have landscape-level treatments to have a population-sized impact on elk,” said Clay Hickey, Fish and Game's regional wildlife biologist.

In the last 25 years in Fish and Game’s Lolo Elk Zone, elk herds have declined from about 15,000 in the late 1980s to less than 1,500 — a 10-fold decrease. The Lolo Elk Zone encompasses areas around North Fork of the Clearwater River, Lochsa River and Selway River drainages.

There are two main reasons for the decline, according to Jerome Hansen, Fish and Game’s Clearwater Region Supervisor: poor elk habitat and predators. Fish and Game is addressing both.

“On the predation side, we’re working hard at implementing our Lolo Elk Zone predation management program by focusing on wolves, mountain lions and bears,” Hansen said.

But any gains from reducing predators is likely to be short lived if there isn’t a corresponding improvement in the habitat. Elk need vast fields of grass and brush to thrive and repopulate, and the best way to get them is with prescribed burns.

“Fires are what made the Clearwater elk herd in the first place,” Hansen said. “Turn-of-the-century fires are what created millions of acres of shrub fields. Those have grown into second-story trees, and now it's prescribed fire, along with some wildland fires, that are helping open those places up and create lush fields that elk need.”

Elk are a popular and important big-game animal, and they attract hunters that experience Idaho’s backcountry and visit local communities.

“Hunting is a very important part of Idaho’s economy,” Hansen said. “Those hunters we’ve lost in the Lolo Elk Zone used to come from all over the country to hunt the Lolo’s legendary elk herds, and they spent money in small communities throughout the Clearwater.”

Prescribed-fire treatments aren’t new on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests. The Forest Service has used fire as a management tool to improve habitat and reduce the amount of available fuels, which helps reduce potentially large, high-intensity wildfires for many years.

In recent years, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation helped fund 47 prescribed-fire projects on the forest that treated about 200,000 acres. The foundation has also worked with land managers nationally on about 1,800 prescribed-fire projects.

“We are a strong supporter of active management, particularly prescribed burning, on these national forests because it’s really important to improve elk habitat,” said Tom Toman, director of science and planning for RMEF. “Much of this elk habitat evolved with fire, and it’s really important we have it in the future.”

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