LEWISTON – Elk in much of Idaho’s Clearwater region continue to struggle with a mix of poor living conditions and predation by mountain lions, black bears and wolves.
For years, attempts have been made to reverse decades of decline in Blocks 10 and 12. Many are frustrated by the long decline in numbers, the economic and cultural reverberations, and the seeming inability of game and land managers to implement measures on a scale large enough to effect meaningful change.
But others believe that a new field guide being developed by the Clearwater Basin Collaborative — which itself has been in the works for years and isn’t quite ready yet — will help agencies like the US Forest Service make progress on the habitat side .
In the Lolo zone, the passage of time has transformed open bush fields into middle-aged forests that provide much poorer food for moose, especially during the summer months when they need to gain fat to survive the coming winter.
Predators – mountain lions, wolves and black bears – have also been identified as a problem. Much of the Lolo, along with the Selway Zone, is remote, making it difficult for wildlife managers to alter the predator-prey balance through hunting or control measures.
The state Fish and Game Commission and the Idaho legislature have done everything in their power to liberalize predator hunting and trapping regulations. But they can’t make it an easier place to hunt or trap.
“In the places where we have predator management plans — the Sawtooth, Panhandle, Lolo, Selway, and Middle Fork zones — these are all difficult places to get to. Some of them are challenging from a vegetation standpoint, like in the Panhandle or in remote areas like Lolo and Selway,” said Toby Boudreau, deer and elk coordinator for Idaho Fish and Game.
Last spring, the department killed 12 wolves in a control operation. Similar efforts to reduce wolf numbers in the Lolo Zone have been made in 10 of the last 11 years.
Moose numbers in the Lolo fell from more than 15,000 animals in the late 1980s to fewer than 2,000 in 2017. Hunters’ efforts also declined. Forest Service officials have attempted to use prescribed fire and some harvesting to create pockets of younger forest and scrubland. Just this fall, the agency used the mandated fire to treat approximately 1,000 acres in the Cayuse Creek drainage in the headwaters of the North Fork of the Clearwater River Basin. The effort is part of the East Saddle Integrated Restoration Program, a partnership between the Forest Service and Idaho Fish and Game.
So far, habitat restoration and predator management have not shown to be sufficient to restore moose numbers. People like Grangeville’s Mike Schlegel are calling for more aggressive action.
“The excuses get old after a while,” says the retired fish and game biologist and game manager. “If they don’t get enough public pressure to do something, nothing will change.”
Many efforts have been made to repair the habitat. Schlegel can tick off a long list of them – the Clearwater Elk Initiative, the Clearwater Elk Collaborative and most recently the Clearwater Basin Collaborative.
Recent efforts have funded research that will soon produce a field guide designed to help land managers locate mandated burning and timber harvesting projects where they will benefit moose the most. The collaboration hired moose researchers Jon and Rachel Cook and Mike Wisdom to assess moose habitat — in terms of the presence or absence of nutritious plant species — in Clearwater and elsewhere in Idaho. They also put radio collars on moose to see what areas they were using and what plants they preferred.
Deborah Monzingo, a fish and wildlife biologist, worked on the project during grad school. She said the forthcoming field guide covers seven habitat zones found in the basin.
“We’re going from ponderosa pine stands to upland spruce and fir, (with) wet and dry forest stands,” she said. “In the field guide, we discuss the preferred species for moose in each zone, what each early and late forest successor stand looks like, how old the stand is after the disturbance, and when the forage begins to decline.”
Zach Swearingen, Fish and Game’s Clearwater Region habitat manager, said the guide is a tool land managers can use when taking actions specifically aimed at improving moose habitat, as well as when conducting wood or fuel reduction projects design, but also want to improve living space as a side benefit.
“You can use it out in the field to identify the plant species that are most beneficial to moose,” he said.
For Schlegel it was there, done. He said there are similar studies from the 1950s that show what needs to be done to help moose, and where.
“They’re reinventing the wheel,” he said. “My biggest frustration is that nothing has happened for 25 years and they have known what to do for 25 years.”
When he says “they,” Schlegel is referring to the US Forest Service. Andrew Skowlund, ranger of the North Fork District of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, acknowledges that habitat modification is difficult and can take a long time.
Plants in the bushveld along Kelly Creek are in many places more than 20 feet tall—too tall for moose. Prescribed fires, such as the 1,000 acres burned at the East Saddle Project, can reset these fields and generate new growth.
To duplicate the project on a larger scale, Skowlund said the agency is working to complete the environmental analysis covering vast expanses of roadless areas in the North Fork and Lochsa districts.
“The more ground that’s covered and cleared, the more options you have in a given landscape,” he said.
Projects that have already gone through the National Environmental Policy Act process will increase the agency’s ability to implement controlled burns if conditions are right. It also gives the agency flexibility in dealing with natural fires.
“We can go out and add fire and help,” he said of a hypothetical fire started by a lightning strike. “The reality is one of our biggest obstacles to getting this work done and implementing it, and that is smoke extraction. So if Mother Nature gets involved, we don’t have to worry as much about smoke, there are just fewer regulatory hurdles to overcome when it’s a wildfire event.”
He said the agency is watching for smoke. Fires in the upper North Fork often drive smoke toward Missoula and Montana’s Bitterroot Valley.
“There’s always a consideration about our downwind communities and what the impact of the smoke will be,” he said. “There are people who are sensitive and I realize that this has real implications for people’s health.I’d rather have a bit of smoke in our conditions than the entire Bitterroot Valley being in catastrophic wildfire conditions for months.”