Elusive Wapiti

In 1909, the state of elk populations in Idaho was so alarming a moratorium on elk hunting was declared in parts of the state. What had happened to once plentiful herds of elk in Idaho is the story of western expansion across North America. 

Lewis and Clark described vast herds covering the grasslands as they made their way west in 1805. As settlers began changing the landscape with farms, and ranches and unregulated market hunters decimated populations though hunting. Wildlife like elk disappeared except in secluded parts of the Rocky Mountains.

Alarmed by the rapid disappearance of wildlife, national leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt and Idaho’s own Emile Grandjean took action. Roosevelt’s efforts led to the creation of the Yellowstone National Park; Grandjean’s determination helped establish a 220,000-acre game preserve in the Payette River drainage west of the Sawtooth Mountains. Elk herds protected in Yellowstone National Park would later to transplanted to preserves to restore elk in Idaho and throughout the West. 

Idaho’s elk population today is a direct result of elk transplanted from Yellowstone National Park. Elk were first moved to Idaho in 1915 by railcar and other transplants happened until 1940. Since then, elk have flourished in Idaho and other intrastate transplants have been conducted by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to establish elk in unoccupied range. Today, an estimated 107,000 elk roam the state from the forests of North Idaho to the sagebrush country in the south. 

The people of North America, since before Giovanna da Verrazano first described them during a 1542 expedition, have had a strong connection and reverence for North American Elk. Historians credit the Shawnee Indians for the name Wapiti, which the translation is “white rump.”

Elk is the second largest species in the deer family. All elk are vocal communicators and their language is quite complex. They vocalize to locate other elk, to warn of impending danger, and to establish dominance for breeding. The most unforgettable sound is of a bugling bull in the crisp autumn air.

Once elk were reintroduced into Idaho and provided protection, they began to flourish. Elk need food, cover, water and space. Idaho had all of these in abundance, especially in the backcountry of the Middle Fork, Selway and Lochsa river basins. These places were just recovering from the huge wildfires in 1902 and 1910, which burned hundreds of thousands of acres. Early post-fire habitats of grass and shrubs were perfect food for growing elk populations. These ideal habitats have since evolved into a more mature forest, and is one of the reasons the elk population in these areas have fallen in the past 20 years.

Yet, elk are very adaptable to food sources from pure grasslands to forbs and shrubs. Their large four chambered stomachs allow them to get valuable nutrients from even lower quality habitats like the sagebrush steppe habitats, which dominate southern Idaho. Today, some of the most desired elk trophy hunting is in sagebrush country.

Another reason elk flourished in Idaho, beyond habitat, is the low road density found in much of the state. Fewer roads translate into less disturbance and more shelter and protection for elk. Even though it may seem like Idaho has a lot of roads and people, it still manages to have one of the lowest road densities in the West.

As elk herds grew from the first releases in 1915, elk were relocated to other parts of the state. Today, there is hardly a part of Idaho that isn’t used by some elk. Idaho’s largest estimated population was about 125,000; in 2014, it is closer to 107,000.

Elk are not tied to a landscape and as conditions change, populations fluctuate. Declines identified in parts of the state, such as the Lochsa and Selway river basins, are primarily due to a combination of changes in predation and habitat, including forest growth and encroachment of noxious weeds. 

Elk also move. In the last decade, elk have expanded into areas where they haven’t been seen since the turn of the century, such as the desert and agricultural areas. When elk move into farm country, they can cause producers problems. Since 1990, Idaho has maintained a Winter Depredation Control account, which is funded by a portion of the sale of each deer, elk, or antelope tag. The money in this special account is used to help reduce damage to crops by elk, deer and antelope. This ranges from putting protective panels on haystacks to hazing the animals away to using hunters to harvest a portion of the animals involved. In certain cases, depredating elk are trapped and relocated to other locations.

Idaho Fish and Game’s new 2014 Elk Management Plan continues the legacy of the last 75 years of management. Using the criteria of bull to cow, and cow to calf ratios, Idaho manages elk for healthy populations with an emphasis on creating hunting opportunity. In addition to creating hunting opportunity, Idaho also manages for high quality bull hunts in a number of hunting areas. For the sportsman, Idaho differs from the rest of the western states, because it is the only state that provides annual over-the-counter opportunity for both resident and nonresident hunters.

Idaho is a great place to come and experience elk. Idaho has a wide variety of habitats from temperate rain forests to desert and terrain from the height of the Rocky Mountains to the flat rolling landscape of the Great Basin, and largest contiguous wilderness in the West, all providing opportunities to observe, hear, photograph, and hunt elk. Idaho is elk country.