Dec. 09–JEROME, Idaho — Trophy elk from popular game management units in south-central Idaho could be in trouble if this winter proves to be a harsh one.
The Pony Complex and Elk Complex fires this summer burned about 160,000 acres of winter range for about 6,000 deer and 1,000 elk, said Scott Reinecker, southwest regional supervisor for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Much of the area burned in the Pony Fire is elk winter range, while the Elk Fire was summer transition range with some winter range, Reinecker told the state Fish and Game Commission on Thursday.
“What’s significant about those elk is they come from unit 39, unit 43, 48 and probably a few from 44 and 45,” he said of units spread from Mountain Home to Hailey. “Those units (have) a lot of hunting pressure, and those are really good units, especially unit 39, which has a lot of hunter interest for elk.”
Fish and Game staff needs to be proactive if they are to save the elk, but many are landowners would rather not have the elk fed, especially on their property, Reinecker said. The ungulates have a history of damaging crops and fencing.
“We have tried to address those depredations by implementing the December and the January hunts, and I think they have been fairly successful,” he said.
But Fish and Game hopes to get ahead of the impending “train wreck” by creating a plan to address the elk’s potential to starve, be displaced onto private land and cause more damage or wander onto the interstate.
The staff has moved 163 tons of elk pellets from the Boise area to two locations near Mountain Home and is working to find areas to set up feed stations.
The staff met with about 20 landowners in Mountain Home in September, Reinecker said.
“We went there not with solutions, but we went there saying, ‘Here’s what we know, here’s what we think may happen, and we need to know if you landowners will be part of the solution.’ Are they going to help us store feed if we need to feed? Are they going to be able to allow elk to feed along with their cattle? To what extent do they want to play?”
Many landowners said they’d rather see the elk culled and not fed at all, even on state or federal lands, Reinecker said. Only one landowner stepped up to allow Fish and Game to feed elk on his grounds.
“For the most part, we heard the theme, ‘I don’t want elk on my private property,’ and I can understand that because a lot of their private ground was burned up,” he said.
The good news is, a lot of vegetation is starting to grow in those burned areas thanks to fall rains. Deer and elk have yet to arrive there, likely meaning they are still finding forage elsewhere, Reinecker said. If snow is light, those deer and elk may have an easier winter with the green-up.
Jerome Hansen, supervisor for the Magic Valley region, said his staff also might need to help elk and deer in the Wood River Valley. The Beaver Creek fire burned much of the available winter range in its unit 48.
“We have tried and tried for years to get rid of winter feeding up there, and now we’re looking at being ready to feed,” he said. “We have ordered 20 tons of alfalfa pellets.”
Fish and Game also will monitor the Big Wood River through the winter, Hansen said.
“It looked like chocolate milk after the fire with all the blowouts,” he said. “I don’t know that there is a lot we can do there, but we are going to bump up our monitoring efforts and go back in there and … see what’s going on, because that is a body of water we watch pretty close.”
Hansen said he was proud of the staff’s effort to help hunters who lost access because of the fires.
“It was pretty crazy in our office,” he said.
As early fall hunts began, the “phone rang off the hook” because about 70 percent of the Smokey Mountain region was off limits to hunters. Whether sites were open or closed seemed to change daily, he said.
Fish and Game offered hunters various options, including rain checks and exchange opportunities.
“In spite of providing the rain check opportunities, we didn’t get that many,” Hansen said. “Areas kept opening up, and they found ways to get in there. I suspect that when the dust settles, we’ll find we had a pretty good hunt in the Smokey Zone.”
In all, 88 rain checks were approved for five hunts of elk, deer and mountain goats. Thirty-three tags from the Smokey Zone were exchanged, and most went for Pioneer Zone tags, Hansen said.
“What was interesting was that we had a waiting list building every day of sportsmen who said, ‘Man, if a Smokey tag comes available, I’ll take it,'” he said. “I think every single tag that we exchanged we filled immediately with someone who was on the list.”
Fish and Game conservation officers also responded to the summer wildfires in other ways, he said.
“They spent some time putting down injured animals, deer and elk with deep burns, eyes burned out and, in talking with some of them, they said, ‘It was the worst day of my career. It was miserable,'” Hansen said. “As well as wildlife, there were a lot of cattle and sheep lost.”