Elk hunting has changed in the last decade, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is working to adapt its management to reflect those changes.
Hunters have an opportunity to do their part by reading the department's proposed elk plan and commenting by Sunday, Sept. 22.
Copies are available at Fish and Game offices, and the plan can also be viewed online at fishandgame.idaho.gov.
Toby Boudreau, Fish and Game's deer and elk coordinator, answered questions about the plan we thought hunters would like to know.
Q: Why revise the elk plan now? What are the significant changes between now and when the last one was drafted?
A: The plan is being revised for several reasons. The previous plan was 15 years old, and we try to update our plans every 10 years. In the last 15 years, elk numbers and distribution have changed, in some cases dramatically. Elk are now found in places where they were once rare such as the Big Desert Zone. In other places, elk numbers have declined, such as in the Lolo Zone.
Elk management objectives needed to be updated. This new plan will serve as the guiding document to manage elk population for growth in some areas and stop elk population declines in other zones.
Elk numbers are being influenced by a number of factors. Cropland depredations by elk have increased, wolves are now a part of the landscape, and elk habitat quality in some areas has continued to decline due to succession and the expansion of noxious weeds. In combination, these factors have affected the health and productivity of Idaho's elk.
Here's what's the same. The A/B tag system and the elk zone system remain in place. Elk management practices will also maintain as much general hunting opportunity as possible.
Here's what's different. Within each zone, we have identified factors that are limiting elk numbers and identified strategies we will employ to reduce the effect of those factors.
We have changed some of the zone boundaries, including splitting one and combining several others. The net effect is one less zone for a total of 28 elk zones instead of the previous 29. We have revised the population objectives in most zones, adjusting them to meet the public's interests.
Q: Why is it important for hunters to comment on the plan, and how will comments affect the final document?
A: Like all of Idaho's wildlife, elk are the property of Idaho's citizens and need to be managed appropriately. The elk plan is Fish and Game's blueprint for managing elk for the next 10 years.
All public comments received will be compiled, read and carefully considered by the elk planning staff. In places where we see deficiencies based on those comments, appropriate changes will be made.
Involving the public in the elk plan or any species plan strengthens its effectiveness and increases public understanding of the plan.
Q: There seems to be an emphasis on increasing hunter opportunity and possibly moving away from the A/B and zone tags. Can you tell us how that might work?
A: The A/B tag system will remain in the new plan. In the early stages of developing this draft elk plan, all other Western states' elk plans were reviewed. Staff learned that there was no better system available anywhere else for effectively distributing hunter effort than Idaho's A/B tag and elk zone system.
Expanding opportunity is about finding ways for hunters desiring to hunt in several places to do so without having to purchase a second nonresident tag.
This expanded opportunity would still limit a hunter to one elk during the season. Two options were developed and presented to the public this summer via a statewide survey to see which one hunters might prefer. The draft plan explains in some detail the two options presented this summer on page 18 of the plan.
Based on hunter input, we are developing an option for further public input in the coming year.
Q: What are some of the major factors that will determine whether a unit is open for general hunts or restricted to controlled hunts?
A: Factors that are considered in great detail are elk population size, population trend, population in relation to objective, hunter access, average number of hunters, average harvest success rate, trophy potential, elk genetics, habitat quality, location in relation to other general or controlled hunts, depredation occurrence rates and bull to cow ratios.
The complexity of the decision can vary greatly, and each factor is given a different weight. When the A/B tag system was instituted in 1999, existing controlled hunts remained in force. Since then, some additional areas have warranted controlled hunts, but we always try to maintain as much general opportunity as possible.
Q: Predators continue to be a big concern for hunters. How does the elk plan address predators?
A: The elk plan deals with predators in a direct way by acknowledging those units and/or zones being negatively affected by predators. It also links those units/zones with strategies outlined in our predation management policy, which is the guiding document for managing for a balance between elk and predators.
Q: The draft plan calls for maintaining about 75,000 elk hunters annually and 400,000 hunter days. Relatively speaking, it seems easier to manage elk populations than hunter participation because you can adjust hunting seasons and rules to increase or decrease elk harvests.
What mechanisms are available to maintain hunter numbers, especially with fluctuating elk populations?
A: Managing hunter participation is an important component of elk management - and through hunting-season length, season timing, antler restrictions and antlerless hunting.
Maintaining hunter numbers will be accomplished by maintaining adequate and desirable opportunities.
Elk have fluctuated over time and will continue to do so, helping hunters find what zones have increasing populations, and more opportunity will also be an important component of keeping hunter numbers at that level or higher.
Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors