Wildlife Habitat Restoration Initiative

Bull Elk
In the Clearwater Basin of north-central Idaho the ecosystem has been seriously modified in the last 60 years due to fire exclusion, reservoir inundation, highway construction, limited timber harvest and the infestation of invasive weed species.   The entire western white pine timber type has been lost to disease and lodge-pole pine occupies much of what were once open grass lands and shrub fields.

Recent analysis shows the type and distribution of vegetation has departed as much as 40% from natural conditions.

As a result of the changes in the ecosystem and predation by wolves and other predators the elk herd has crashed.  The Northfork herd for example, lost 93% of its population in a little over 2 decades.  As figure 1 illustrates – 50% of that loss (8,000 animals) occurred before wolf population numbers reached a level to have a significant effect.  This is clear evidence as to the impact of habitat loss.

Steelhead TroutOther wildlife species that depend on openings in the forest cover are also diminished.

Restoration of the habitat that supports elk is essential for ecosystem health for ungulates and smaller mammals and bird life that depend on early- seral* habitat.

Key Points

  • The elk herd of the Clearwater Basin once considered a premier herd in the nation is in serious decline.
  • The collaboration between the Forest Service (USFS), the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDF&G) and the Nez Perce Tribe (Tribe) is critical to solving the problem and could be precedence setting.
  • Three factors important in maintaining populations of this size: habitat, the biology of the animal and predation and understanding nutritional status of elk is critical to determining habitat restoration needs.

Background

The Clearwater Basin, tucked away in a remote part of Idaho has always been rich in  salmon, steelhead, elk, deer, bear, lions, wolves, moose, bighorn sheep, goats, lynx, wolverine, and a whole suite of other associated species.

CBC members unanimously agreed on the value of anadromous fisheries and aquatic habitat, elk, and backcountry in the Clearwater Basin. Protecting these resources for the ecological, social and economic health of the Basin is a foundation of the Collaborative’s work and in 2010 the members agreed a wildlife habitat restoration strategy was needed.

Specifically the charge is to develop a holistic strategy of restoration for all wildlife in the Basin that considers the biological, social, economic and political aspects of the issue.

CBC has chosen not to enter into the fray about wolves and predation.  While we recognize predation as an important factor, it is the responsibility of state and federal managers.

We know from the archeological records that elk have been a resource for the Nez Perce Tribe for 10,000 years.  During this period fire was an active part of the Basin’s ecology and important in the habitat maintenance needed to support a sizable elk herd.  The fire regime continued through the early 1900s and by the 1950s there were an estimated 35,000 head of elk in the Basin.

By the early 1970s a steady decline in elk numbers was evident.  Numerous efforts, not the least of which was the 2002 Clearwater Elk Collaborative, have been made to reverse this trend without success.   Our strategy is the first attempt to use a scientific ecosystem-wide and holistic approach that includes the relevant cooperating entities; IDF&G, Nez Perce Tribe and the Forest Service.

Current Situation

Science tells us there are 3 factors important in maintaining populations of this size:  habitat, the biology of the animal and predation. It is our objective to restore the habitat so that a significant and viable elk herd will exist in the Basin once again.

A long term wildlife habitat restoration effort has begun with the initial steps for strategy development and financial support from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and has gained the cooperation and working relationships between the USFS, IDF&G and the Nez Perce Tribe.

We see the job ahead of us in 3 phases:  Fact finding and building support, creation of a focused scientifically and economically sound strategy, and implementation.  Our objective is to create an action plan that can be implemented on the ground.

We have convened a group of scientists to define the situation as to what is known and what questions are yet to be answered.

As we gather information to help us in developing a strategy we find we are missing one significant piece of data.  Recent research indicates summer range nutritional limitations may have a greater influence than winter range nutritional situations.  If this is true in the Basin, gathering specific information could help us target summer habitat treatments.

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