Elk Collaborative

Posted: Jul 3, 2006
Written by: 
Joshua Zaffos

The cooperative group, brought together by Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, was formed in response to the declining elk herds of the 6-million acre basin, which is comprised mostly of the Clearwater and Nez Perce national forests. The Collaborative's mission was to develop consensus-based recommendations for habitat and wildlife management in order to increase elk numbers. The scope of concerns ranged from specific goals for natural and prescribed fire, logging and brush harvesting, and noxious weed control, to general prescriptions including "balance predator and elk populations" and "enhance the Forest Service's ability to more broadly implement our recommendations."

After a year's worth of meetings, the Collaborative agreed to 58 consensus recommendations, generally recognizing that habitat was the main restricting factor for Clearwater elk.

The Collaborative's recommendations may help elk, but some stakeholders say the group missed the opportunity to build meaningful relationships and to discuss elk-wolf interactions in the forests. When the Idaho Department of Fish and Game released a plan this January to kill 75 percent of the wolves in the basin - in the name of increasing the elk populations - some Collaborative members felt the spirit and the content of the exercise was lost.

"I don't necessarily see that there was a huge shift in people's positions," says Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League. "There wasn't a whole lot of what I'd call 'collaborative learning' that took place."


 Rich Tuck, of Concerned Sportsmen of Idaho, leads delegates in a group exercise
Office of U.S. Senator Mike Crapo/photo by Mitch Silvers
The Clearwater Basin's elk herds have fluctuated from legendary to lackluster over the past century, and wolves have played only a supporting role in those changes. A series of massive wildfires between 1910 and 1934 helped create habitat and forage for elk, including a million acres of shrub fields. As many as 36,000 elk - the largest herd in Idaho - roamed the basin, without fear of predators, like wolves, bears, and lions, which had been killed off by hunters.

Decades of fire suppression led to dog-hair forests, the loss of shrub fields, and the disappearance of elk habitat. By the 1970s, these changes, combined with new roads and rising hunter pressure, caused elk numbers to drop. A rebound in the 1980s, due largely to a reduction of hunting numbers and change in regulations, only partly compensated for the decline in elk habitat.

Meanwhile, hunters perceived a new threat to the elk herds: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's reintroduction of wolves in 1995. Even though the federal government and environmental groups saw the reintroduction as part of the restoration of the larger ecosystem, hunters and locals believed the wolves would only jeopardize the return of large elk herds. Then, following a particularly severe winter in 1997, the Clearwater elk population dropped to 5,000 animals.

Hunters, loggers, and local landowners began cooperating to stimulate changes in forest management for the benefit of elk, joining together with federal and state agencies in December 1998 to form the Clearwater Elk Initiative. Groups got together to promote projects with a series of "stewardship contracts" on the national forests, where the value of products harvested during restoration work can be used to offset the cost of other restoration activities. But environmental groups and the Nez Perce Tribe declined to participate or support the efforts.

Protests from environmentalists and reluctance on the part of the Forest Service "whittled us down to nothing," says Ed Lindahl, chair of the Clearwater Elk Recovery Team (CERT), the core group behind the Clearwater Elk Initiative. Conservation groups portrayed one project as "logging for elk," he says.

By 2002, there wasn't a single successful stewardship contract and nothing had been done to increase the elk population. Hunters turned to Sen. Crapo, who organized an Elk Summit in January 2003. The meeting drew more than 60 participants and sparked the initiation of the Elk Collaborative to reach consensus solutions to elk-habitat enhancement and forest management.


The Collaborative met 15 times during the following year, and included wildlife advocates, hunters, environmentalists, commercial outfitters, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the timber industry. Representatives of the Forest Service and Idaho Fish and Game participated as non-voting members and advisers to the process.

Just by getting all the stakeholders to the table, the Elk Collaborative succeeded where previous consensus-based efforts in the region had stumbled. The group agreed on 58 consensus recommendations, which placed emphasis on forest management to enhance elk forage and calving grounds.

Recommendations focused on the use of wildfire and prescribed burns in roadless areas and wilderness, and timber-harvesting and mechanized disturbance in roaded areas. They included specific numerical goals for acres to be burned, harvested or otherwise managed, and population and calf survival objectives within hunting units. The stakeholders also advocated for an aggressive policy to reduce noxious weeds in the national forests. By focusing the discussion on elk habitat - as compared to predator control - the different interests found plenty of common ground.

Collaborative members intended for the Forest Service to incorporate the recommendations within its ongoing forest-plan revision for the Clearwater and Nez Perce national forests. A draft plan is due out in fall 2006, and the agency has given an update to Sen. Crapo on its progress with the Collaborative's proposals.

"A lot of the Collaborative's intent will be [in the revised forest plan] because it's the right thing to do, not just for the elk, but for overall ecosystem function," says Doug Gober, North Fork district ranger on the Clearwater National Forest.

"The Forest Service is keeping their end of the bargain," says Mitch Silvers, Sen. Crapo's Regional Director.

CERT chair Ed Lindahl, who is on the board of Concerned Sportsmen of Idaho and has opposed wolf restoration, isn't convinced. "The Forest Service has not come close to implementing what the public has recommended," he says. Lindahl points out that the management-plan revision won't have specific objectives for acres to burn and harvest, and he believes it's another case of the Forest Service ignoring a local collaborative group.

Gober says new Forest Service planning regulations dictate that forest plans should avoid exact, numerical goals, and instead be "strategic" in their form.

Several participants believe the agency is honoring many of the Collaborative's ideas. Jonathan Oppenheimer says there's nothing in the forest-plan revision that precludes the group's recommendations.


The conservation community is more concerned with a different government agency ignoring a different set of recommendations. The Collaborative reached two consensus recommendations, asking the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) to fund the monitoring of wolves in the area, and require the agency to conduct a three- to five-year study of wolf-elk interaction within the Clearwater Basin, with money from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission adopted the Collaborative's consensus recommendations on prescribed burning, wildfire, and logging in November 2004. But the agency remained conspicuously quiet on points dealing with predator control.

This January, the IDFG took control of wolf management from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and then proposed killing 75 percent of the estimated 58 animals in the Clearwater Basin. Regional Fish and Game Commissioner Alex Irby says the strategy is supposed to buy time for the elk to survive, while the larger habitat restoration measures get going. He adds that the plan isn't to eliminate wolves from the region or the state.

But wolf advocates say the plan disregards the Collaborative recommendations and the underlying science that habitat, not predators, is holding back the elk.

"We're thinking wolves will reshape this [elk] population, and make it younger and thriftier," says Keith Lawrence, Nez Perce Tribe wildlife director. "The Department didn't go back to the Collaborative or a larger group about how to address those concerns."

"For all the work we did as a Collaborative, the state didn't take that into account at all," adds Nick Fiore of the Wolf Education and Research Center. U.S. Fish and Wildlife is now considering the state's proposal, and Fiore says that if the feds give approval, his and other groups will likely sue. "That's the whole point of having the Collaborative - to avoid going to court."

"The fact that [the Elk Collaborative] came up with consensus on as many things as we did was interesting," says Fiore, "but about one-fourth of the group felt [that] if we could just do logging and harvesting of predators, we could just put everything else aside."

Most participants didn't expect the Elk Collaborative to reach consensus on wolf management. But the yearlong exercise may have also failed to breach any meaningful gap between traditional adversaries, despite what both pro- and anti-wolf advocates say was a good-faith effort on their parts.

Idaho's plan to kill 75 percent of the wolves in the Clearwater Basin has jeopardized the good faith of the Elk Collaborative, and suggests a narrow underlying agenda incompatible with collaboration.

For more information see:

Clearwater Elk Collaborative

Elk Collaborative's final report
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