Panhandle Fire Closures

With the recent fire closure of much of units 3 & 4 in the Idaho Panhandle, and the likelihood that this closure could extend into elk rifle season in these units, it appears that there is going to be a very good chance of significant 'over-crowding' of elk hunters in units 6, 7 and 9 since these units have the next most available national forest land left open for hunting for Panhandle elk. For the past several years these units in particular were listed as 'not meeting objectives' for both calf and bull elk due to predators and severe winters keeping calf recruitment down. It would appear that this could potentially be a disaster in the making for these still open units if hunter numbers esacalate significantly this season and harvest success shoots up this fall for these units still in recovery mode. *Interestingly enough, IDFG now no longer classifies any of the Pandhandle units as meeting or not meeting recruitment objectives for elk - they are now designated with the 'no numerical objective' designation. Not sure when this was changed on the website, but I believe it was sometime this year. Coincidence? I realize that it is not IDFG implementing the forest closures (it is the Idaho Panhandle NF agency), but given the once in a century fire conditions and the potential long term impacts it could have on the Panhandle's elk herds I would interested to hear some feedback from IDFG as to their concerns regarding the above and whether or not they are considering any one time restrictions on hunting seasons this year in an effort to try and mitigate hunter overcrowding in any particular unit that remains open.
This year's fire season is no doubt putting both hunters and IDFG in a tough spot.  We did consider the effects of the closures and the necessity for hunters to change areas because of the current fire closures.  For the following  reasons we made the decision to maintain the current season: We are offering the ability for hunters to switch zones.  We have extended the period that hunters with a Panhandle tag can change zones to Sept 11.  Hunters can either switch to a different zone or get a receipt they can turn in later for any zone with a general hunt, including the Panhandle.  That way then can keep their options open and hunt in the Panhandle if fire closures are reduced or choose a different zone.  This will reduce crowding somewhat. The last 2 years have been mild and we've observed excellent overwinter survival.  The survival rate of cows in Units 4, 6, and 7 has been 93%. Last year there was a marked improvement in calf:cow ratios in the St Joe drainage.  Previously we have observed calf:cow ratios in the low teens during our mid-winter helicopter flights.  Last year the calf:cow ratio in the St Joe was 34 calves per 100 cows and in some areas they were as high as 43:100. We have a predation managment plan in effect in the St Joe drainage.  We've put a lot of pressure on predators, including wolves and mountain lions, and harvest of both of these species has been increasing.  This, in conjunction with the mild winters, may explain the high cow survival rate. There is no cow harvest in any of these units.  By protecting the cows we are preserving the reproductive portion of the population.  As mentioned above, the last 2 years were very mild and female calves from 2013 will now start producing calves.  There are currently closures on Forest Service and private timber lands in Units 6, 7, and 9.  Some of the most productive elk areas are currently closed.  This will provide a refuge for all elk regardless of the harvest in open areas of these units.  If the closures are lifted in these units they will also be lifted in other areas, allowing hunters to return to Unit 4. Some hunters will simply choose to not hunt this year.  While this is something that IDFG does not want to see, it will reduce the number of hunters in the woods. As was mentioned earlier, this is a difficult year for everyone.  Hopefully area closures will be reduced by the elk rifle season.  However, in the event they are not, we feel we can offer the existing hunting season without severely impacting the elk herds.  If conditions worsen we can consider other options.  Thanks for your question.
Answered on: 
Wednesday, September 2, 2015 - 3:47 PM MDT