Where's the Elk?

elk in river

The Clearwater national forest was once home to the nation's largest herd of elk. However, that's not the case any longer.

Elk are a product of disturbance. They thrive where fire has disturbed a forest. In the first half of the 20th century, large fires scorched much of the forest. For example, in 1910 three million acres of land burned in just two days! That fire and fires in 1919 and 1934 created open spaces where red stemmed coenophus thrived. This is elk food that is highly intolerant to shade.

So, in the 1930's and 1940's, the Clearwater elk herd thrived. The first major setback for the Clearwater elk was the terrible winter of 1948-49. It devastated the elk herd, but the elk were eventually able to recover because of plentiful food and limited hunter access.

The next big event that impacted the Clearwater elk was the building of Highway 12, opening up the Lochsa and the North Fork Clearwater. This gave hunters access to the elk. The herd dropped during the decade of the 1960's. Around 1975 the Fish & Game Commission stopped the cow elk hunts, allowing the elk herds to build back up. For the next decade or so, elk numbers fluctuated, depending upon the winter weather. In the severe winter of 1996-97, the elk population again collapsed.

elk in winterAccording to wildlife expert Jim Peek, "so, there's been at least three states that this population has gone through that we've semi-documented. But this elk herd is not just gradually declining, and that's the whole point. It fluctuates around some level even as the habitat is rather consistently declining... We used to think that all we had to worry about was winter range. Now we realize that summer range and probably late summer habitat are very important for elk, too."

Declining logging and half a century of fire suppression has resulted in a much denser forest, one with more shade. As the forest closes in, that impacts valuable plants like red stemmed ceonothus. According to Peek, "any shading at all starts to cause them to lose their productivity. Just a little shade on these sites from the conifers starts to cause a deterioration in the elk food."

"In order to have a big population of elk," says Peek, "you have to have large landscape-level habitat change. The Forest Service doesn't have funds or the personnel to engage in this kind of change; and if they were to do it like the old Peak King fire did, they would destroy a lot of other attributes up here and they're well aware of that. If you look at their management plans in place, there's some token burning here and a little bit of habitat manipulation there. That will keep a few elk around. But in the end, it's not going to do much more. It's token management as far as I'm concerned."

wolf howlingOf course, if the young calves do not survive to adulthood, the elk numbers will continue to decline. And there does seem to be evidence to suggest that predators, primarily bears and cougars and now wolves, are impacting the Clearwater elk herds.

According to Fish & Game Supervisor Cal Groen, "Mother nature has not been allowed to work in the Clearwater. It's getting way outside the bounds of the natural processes." This has meant fewer open spaces for elk to forage for food.

"In the spring what happens? The cow elk go to calve in these open areas. The bears come out; they want to eat vegetation, so they go to the open areas. They meet; they're forced into much smaller and restricted areas. You get an interaction there. A bear finds a calf, that has just been born. It's going to go after the calf. We're constraining, confining stuff in more closed-in situations. That's probably making the predators more effective."