Jan. 31–Alex Irby of Orofino has seen plans to aid troubled elk herds in the upper Clearwater Basin come and go.
He can list them off and give a short history of each. But despite nearly 20 years of effort, there has been scant positive change for elk in places like the Lolo and Selway elk hunting zones. Still he remains optimistic as another effort gets underway.
“I haven’t given up. I won’t give up,” said the former Idaho Fish and Game commissioner from Orofino.
His outlook is buoyed because of the entities involved. The research is being driven by the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, a citizens group he co-chairs that is made up of people representing diverse interests trying to find common ground on local forest management issues.
“This time we have everybody that is instrumental,” he said. “By that I mean the (Idaho Department of) Fish and Game, the Forest Service and the (Nez Perce) Tribe.”
He is also excited by the new approach.
“Always before we looked at just winter habitat and actually we have to have both (winter and summer habitat). If we don’t have healthy animals going into winter, it doesn’t matter how much winter habitat you have.”
Independent researchers John and Rachel Cook are working with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to capture and place radio collars on about 60 cow elk in four different areas — Craig Mountain, Dworshak Reservoir, South Fork of the Clearwater and the Lolo. As a first step they will measure the condition of the captured elk by assessing its body fat and pregnancy rates. They will then be able to relate the data to the quality of the nutrition elk are getting from their browse.
John Cook said he and his wife have documented through studies in Oregon and Washington that summer range plays a significant role in the performance of elk herds. Summer is the time when cow elk need energy to produce milk for their calves. Both cows and calves need to build up fat reserves during the summer so they are healthy going into winter.
“Often times the mortality rates in winter have as much to do with how fat they are coming off of summer range,” he said. “If there are nutrition limits in summer, it can really impact their performance.”
He and his wife have documented body fat rates in other areas ranging from 18 percent to 2 percent.
“The difference in performance in terms of things like calf growth and the likelihood they will breed that fall and the age young animals will first breed, varies tremendously over that range of body fat,” Cook said.
The collars allow biologists to track the animals to see where they go and what type of habitat they utilized. Additional, but as of yet unfunded phases of the study, would have researchers recapture the animals at various times through the year to further assess their condition. A final phase would have the Cooks place tame elk in pens at various locations so they can measure how much nutrition they are getting from the available plant communities. When complete, the data can be used to produce models that show how elk use the landscape, and that can help land managers plan elk-friendly projects.
“It certainly gives them a better idea of what they should do to improve conditions for elk and how to get the best bang for the buck when they do things and where on the landscape to (do things) to get the best bang for the buck,” Cook said.
Rick Brazell, supervisor of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, said the research will be valuable to land managers.
“It might help us figure out better ‘why here, why now?’ ” he said. “In other words, if we have money to do a habitat project and we think here is the best place, we might find two ridges over is the best place.”
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Forest Service paid $300,000 for the first phase. Orville Daniels, a member of the foundation who sits on the collaborative, said there are ongoing efforts to raise more money.
The total research project could cost as much as $6 million or $7 million. But it is uncertain if the portion that would use tame elk will happen. Daniels called it a heavy lift.
“That is the sort of thing if you get started you have to have assurance that you can complete it. You raise these tame elk and as the saying goes, you own them.”
It’s a lift that shouldn’t happen, said Mike Schlegel, a retired Idaho Fish and Game biologist from Grangeville. He can recall studies dating back to 1964 that have all pointed to habitat problems. Instead of more study, he wants to see on-the-ground habitat improvement projects.
“If they have another $7.5 million to study they should be investing it in the habitat,” Schlegel said.
Daniels counters that the data the Cooks and others will gather can be used and tested by land managers as the study moves forward.
“This is a study so we can design restoration of habitat: where we should burn and in what way should we burn; where should we spray weeds; and where should we invest in improving the habitat to have the best effect on wildlife.”
Barker may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.