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Commission Supports Clearwater Elk Initiative

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission has raised Fish and Game's stake in the effort to restore one of America's premier elk herds. At their December meeting, Commissioners voted to become a formal member of the Clearwater Basin Elk Habitat Initiative, and to endorse a memorandum calling for the restoration of "natural disturbance" patterns which create the mosaic habitat conditions that favor wildlife. The Clearwater Basin Elk Habitat Initiative involves government agencies, conservation groups, sportsman organizations, outfitters, private companies, and many concerned citizens in the attempt to improve wildlife habitat and increase elk populations in an area of Idaho that once supported a large, healthy herd of elk. Fish and Game Clearwater regional supervisor Cal Groen pointed out that in the early part of the century, periodic forest fires in the Clearwater River Basin created habitat with differing ages and sizes of vegetation, just the thing to help elk and other wildlife thrive. With aggressive fire control, less forest acreage has been disturbed in recent years so little new plant growth is being encouraged. The major habitat change is loss of early-succession growth. Open areas lush with new plant growth are rapidly disappearing. "A mid-serial monoculture situation is dominating the landscape. This is not natural or healthy." Scientists estimate that about 70,000 acres of habitat disturbance is needed each year to recreate historic disturbance patterns which benefit a wide variety of wildlife. The Clearwater Elk Initiative partners are working with the landowners in the six million-acre Clearwater Basin in planning how controlled fire and other different vegetative treatments can be done to encourage growth of quality habitat. Groen stated "There are some concerns with predator-prey relationships in some areas, but the big problem is declining wildlife habitat." The department and commission are encouraging bear and lion harvest in back country units by liberalizing hound hunting rules, allowing extra tags, lowering prices and extending seasons. In addition, cow elk harvest has been ended in the Selway and Lolo elk zones and tag sales have been capped. With elk harvest cut back and additional hunting opportunities on healthy bear and lion populations, the remaining "leg of the stool," habitat, must be dealt with in a large-scale manner. The effectiveness of changes in habitat and associated wildlife response will be monitored by the Initiative Monitoring Group, headed by Dr. Oz Garten from the University of Idaho. Elk and neotropical bird population responses will be closely monitored, for example and the age/sex ratio/survival (and other information) makeup of herds will be monitored, as well as hunter density and harvest, predation, and the type, makeup, and quality of vegetation in the habitat. Groen emphasized that the initiative is a landscape approach which attempts to incorporate historical disturbance regimens to benefit a variety of wildlife - including elk.