Climate Change and Idaho’s Wildlife

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“Idaho wildlife has survived hard winters for centuries. But…”
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Idaho Statesman
February 27, 2008

How will growth, climate change affect big game?

Wildlife is important to Idaho’s economy and
quality of life, but some numbers are in decline

The 1,200 elk roaming the sagebrush plains north
of Interstate 84 between Boise and Mountain Home
this winter illustrate the challenge Idaho faces
in maintaining big game herds. What is now winter
wildlife habitat could one day be subdivisions.

“People ought to go look at the elk now and
wonder where they’re going to be 50 years from
now,” said Jim Unsworth, wildlife bureau chief
for Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Winter has
been a strong reminder of the challenges facing
Idaho’s big game animals. In addition to the elk
wintering along I-84, large herds of mule deer
have been wedged in the Foothills between deep
snow above and Idaho’s most populated communities
below.

Idaho wildlife has survived hard winters for
centuries. But developed and degraded habitat,
extended drought and long-term climate change
could take a greater toll on future wildlife
populations.

Some of Idaho’s most iconic animals, such as elk
and bighorn sheep, are in decline. Other big game
populations, such as mule deer and pronghorn
antelope, are stable but below the levels of
previous decades.

Wildlife is important to Idaho’s quality of life
– everyone from hunters to hikers to sight-seeing
families wants thriving animal populations.

Wildlife is also important to Idaho’s $3
billion-a-year tourist economy, the state’s
third-largest industry. The U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service’s 2006 survey reported that more
than 1 million people participated in
“wildlife-associated recreation” in Idaho –
including hunting, fishing and wildlife watching
– and spent $922 million in the process.

Hunters spent about $40 million in license and
tag fees in 2007. That accounts for more than
half of Fish and Game’s annual budget, and the
agency manages all of the state’s wildlife, not
just big game animals.

Fish and Game officials will set hunting rules in
March. In advance of next month’s decisions, we
asked F&G for population trends and asked people
outside the agency about why big game animals are
important and what challenges they face.

Elk o 115,000 (F&G’s estimated population)

Population trend: Declining over the past 10 years

Why they’re important: A bull elk is one of
Idaho’s most iconic animals. You can find elk
antlers adorning a barn in Orofino or a ritzy
hotel in Sun Valley. “They’re a big, majestic
animal,” said Jim Peek, an elk expert and retired
wildlife professor at University of Idaho.
“There’s just nothing about them that doesn’t
capture a hunter’s imagination, or anyone else’s
for that matter.” Elk hunting is an Idaho
tradition with a rich heritage. Because it is
difficult to find elk, and a big chore to get a
downed one out of the woods, hunts often center
around large camps that include generations of
hunters. Elk hunting also attracts lots of
non-resident hunters, who paid $7.6 million in
license and tag fees in 2007, which was a
fraction of their total cost to hunt.

Challenges: Elk and wolves are likely to be a
major battle for years to come, and regardless of
what happens on the ground, some people will
always blame wolves if there are fewer elk. Brad
Compton, F&G state big game manager, said when
there is between 700 and 800 wolves in the state
and they’re eating elk, it is bound to affect the
size of some elk herds. Peek says declining
habitat, especially in the North Idaho and the
Clearwater areas, has largely been responsible
for the declining elk population. Backcountry
herds also have large segments of older cows,
which produce fewer and smaller calves that are
less likely to survive. Whether wolves are
responsible for declining herds, they definitely
are creating management challenges for F&G’s
biologists, who are trying to maintain a
predator/prey balance while also satisfying
hunters that contribute a large share of the
agency’s budget.

Bighorn sheep o 4,000 (includes California and Rocky Mountain subspecies)

Population trend: Decreasing over the past 10 years.

Why they’re important: Along with elk, bighorns
are an iconic big game animal and most often
associated with wild, undeveloped country.
Bighorns were historically important for American
Indians and early settlers. Indian tribes hunted
sheep for food and used their horns for
everything from bows to spoons. Bighorn sheep
tags are the only tags in Idaho sold at auction.
A hunter from British Columbia recently paid
$65,000 for an Idaho bighorn sheep tag, which is
still a fraction of the record $180,000 a hunter
paid in 2005. It is also a thrill for people to
see bighorns in Idaho’s wildest places, like
Hells Canyon and the Frank Church Wilderness, but
bighorns were once more widespread and easily
viewed. “That’s a great experience, and we’ve
kind of lost that in our culture,” said Craig
Gehrke, regional director for The Wilderness
Society.

Challenges: Historically, bighorn sheep
populations were estimated around 10,000 animals
in Hells Canyon alone, and thousands more roamed
other parts of the states. Now there are small
herds scattered in a few areas of the state, and
many transplanted into areas where native herds
died or were killed. There’s a long-term problem
between wild and domestic sheep. When the two
intermingle, bighorns often contract pneumonia,
and many bighorns die. Bighorn sheep range over
broad areas, so if a disease outbreak occurs in
the Lewiston area, it could affect herds all the
way the way through Hells Canyon. Gov. Butch
Otter recently convened a panel to look come up
with a strategy for keeping bighorns and domestic
sheep separated, but many people fear it will
mean less habitat available for bighorns. “I’m
afraid the state is going down this management
plan where they say bighorns can be in Hells
Canyon, but if they come out, they will be shot,”
Gehrke said.

Pronghorn antelope o 12,000

Population trend: Stable to slightly increasing
the past 10 years, but down from decades ago. .
Why they’re important: Pronghorns are indigenous
to North American species and found nowhere else
in the world. According to the National Park
Service, and they have roamed in the West for at
least a million years and remained physically
unchanged. Pronghorns live in open country, and
their tan and white colors make them easy for
wildlife watchers to spot. Pronghorns are also a
popular big game animal for hunters, thousands of
whom apply for a limited number of pronghorn tags
every year.

Challenges: Pronghorns rely on large open spaces
like sagebrush and grasslands. Warmer, dryer
weather has contributed to wildfires that have
burned hundreds of thousands of acres of
pronghorn habitat, and fewer young pronghorns are
produced during dry years. Pronghorns can be
intolerant of development; for example, they can
become entangled in fences or have difficulty
getting through them, which can block their
movement. Pronghorns are attracted to agriculture
lands because there’s usually water and forage
there. Antelope often are found in large herds,
which can cause damage to private property when
they descend on cultivated fields.

White-tailed deer o 200,000

Population trend: Increasing in the past 10 years.

Why they’re important: White-tailed deer are the
most abundant big game animal north of the Salmon
River, and their high numbers and robust
populations provide long hunting seasons.
Whitetails’ high tolerance for humans makes them
popular for wildlife watchers. People move out of
cities to get closer to nature, and whitetails
often will live year-round within a short
distance of people’s homes and become almost like
pets. Hunters enjoy whitetail hunting from late
August into December – and either-sex hunting in
many cases – so whitetails are important for
recreation and food. “They’re definitely part of
the culture up here,” said F&G’s Jay Crenshaw,
wildlife manager for the Clearwater Region. “I
think in general, people have come to expect
relatively high densities of whitetails.”

Challenges: Maintaining high populations
densities put deer at risk for disease
transmission. A disease outbreak several years
ago killed thousands of whitetails in the
Clearwater Region. Lots of whitetails means happy
hunters, but unhappy farmers because the deer can
cause crop damage. “It’s a constant battle to
find a balance,” Crenshaw said. And it is not
just agriculture lands that have problems with
excessive deer. Whitetails will live year-round
within city limits or in the suburbs. “People
like them until they jump over the fence and
start eating their gardens,” Crenshaw said.

Mule deer o 300,000

Population trend: Stable over the past 10 years,
but down from historic highs in the 1950s and
1960s.

Why they’re important: They’re the most abundant
and widespread big game animal in the state.
“There’s mule deer in every county in the state,”
Unsworth said. Mule deer are also the most
popular quarry for hunters, and “you can’t
underestimate their value as watchable wildlife,”
he said. Mule deer account for the largest
portion of the annual big game harvest, which
provides food for thousands of hunters. Mule deer
are also a significant prey base for mountain
lions, coyotes and other predators.

Challenges: Mule deer numbers are stable but are
unlikely to return to previous high numbers,
Unsworth said. Development, drought and invasive
weeds, like cheatgrass and others that invade
winter range, have taken a toll on mule deer.
“The biggest challenge is probably loss of
habitat,” Unsworth said. F&G also must try to
satisfy hunters who want abundant herds in
accessible areas. Mule deer hunting is popular
with younger and older hunters who are less able
to get into the backcountry areas.

Wolves o 730

Population trend: Increasing 10 percent annually.

Why they’re important: “Wolves are a native
member of the wildlife community and, therefore,
have their rightful place in Idaho’s wildlife
landscape,” said Jim Holyan, wildlife biologist
for the Nez Perce Tribe. There was widespread
public support for restoring wolves, and hearing
one howl or seeing one is special to people,
Holyan said. Some argue wolves are detrimental to
other big game species, but that argument has
been made against all of Idaho’s large predators.
Most of the wolves’ harshest critics accept that
the animals are here to stay, and F&G could take
full control of the animals in March, which would
round out a diverse population of big game
animals, both predators and prey. Wolf-watching
has brought millions of tourist dollars to
businesses near Yellowstone, and that could
spread to Idaho.

Challenges: Biologists say managing wolves will
be a social issue, not a biological one, because
wolves have proven they can thrive in Idaho. But
there’s a major court battle brewing over whether
to remove wolves from the endangered species
list. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed
delisting wolves on Feb. 21, and national and
Idaho wolf advocates want to keep wolves
protected so populations will continue to grow
and spread into other Western states. When – or
if – wolves are delisted, F&G will come under
intense pressure from hunters and Idaho
legislators to drastically reduce wolf
populations.

Population and trends for Idaho’s other big game animals

Moose F&G’s estimated population: 15,000.
Population trend: Increasing, but growth has
slowed the past 10 years.

Mountain goat F&G’s estimated population: 2,500. Population trend: Stable.

Mountain lion F&G’s estimated population: 2,000
to 2,500. Population trend: Declining or
stabilizing in different areas.

Black bear F&G’s estimated population: 20,000. Population trend: stable.

Grizzly bear (not a game animal) F&G’s estimated
population: 50 on the U.S. sides of the Selkirk
Mountains, 20 to 40 in the Yellowstone area that
move in and out of the park. Population trend:
Slowly increasing in both areas.

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