TUCSON – Five percent of Arizona’s elk population are causing the majority of conflicts with other land uses. Arizona wildlife officials want to alleviate that trend.
The Arizona Game and Fish Commission March 24 approved the department moving forward to continue refining proposed alternative elk management strategies – both short-term and long-term – aimed at accomplishing that goal.
The short-term strategies developed by Game and Fish Department biologists entail increasing hunt-permit tags in “limited elk population areas” this year to address private land issues, potential conflicts with other wildlife species, or to direct harvest at resident elk residing yearlong on winter range. Those increases are being incorporated into the hunt package that comes before the commission for approval at its April 21 public meeting in Phoenix.
Assistant Director Mike Senn, Field Operations Division, advised that the public will have opportunity to comment on the proposed elk hunt increases during the April Commission meeting.
“These proposed management strategies are not locked in concrete, with either the short-term or the long-term ones. The long-term strategies are just that – long term. Between now and when they are fully implemented down the road, we will ensure plenty of opportunity for public input. On some of the proposals that would require regulatory changes, it could take up to two years to implement,” Senn advised.
Senn told the commission that the top elk managers in the state were assembled into an “Elk Harvest Management Strategy Team” to examine all the department systems, regulations and processes.
“The team was asked to look outside the way things are done now, and put their ideas on paper detailing how to provide maximum flexibility to elk managers for reducing or relieving conflicts, while still retaining a quality elk population,” Senn said.
The team leader, Richard Remington, who is the Pinetop regional supervisor, explained that the Elk Harvest Management Strategy Team developed short-term strategies within existing regulatory and hunt frameworks, and long-term strategies including those that would require some sort of regulatory changes or significant process modifications in the future.
Many ideas the committee explored and incorporated into the plans came from the public during past public meetings. “This is obviously a long-standing issue. We have received a wealth of public comment and ideas in the past, and these management proposals will no doubt generate even more input. The management strategies will continue to evolve. The team did a great job of giving us a full range of alternatives to work with,” Senn said.
Various commissioners congratulated the team on coming up with such a detailed, comprehensive and flexible package of proposed elk management alternatives. They suggested the department let the public know the vast amount of elk management experience represented on the Elk Harvest Management Strategy Team.
“I don’t know how many years of experience all the team members have combined, but just four of us add up to more than a century’s worth,” Remington responded.
This year’s alternative hunt management package is aimed at significantly reducing elk numbers on or adjacent to private land, or to meet public land resource issues such as aspen regeneration protection.
The “Limited Elk Population Hunts,” if adopted by the commission in April, will be identified as such in this year’s hunt proclamation and regulations to aid hunters in identifying these hunts while filling out their elk permit-tag applications.
The elk strategies team defined “Limited Range Populations” as those in areas where the presence of elk is not essential to the long-term maintenance of elk populations, or where management of other species is a higher priority.
Game Branch Chief Tice Supplee, who also served on the team, explained to the Commission that this year’s alternative elk management strategy increases elk permits by approximately 1,500 in new “limited elk population hunt” areas over what was originally proposed in this year’s hunt package. Overall increases to elk permits will total more than 4,000 from last year.
Senn advised that Limited Elk Population Hunts can be challenging and lower hunter success is expected. “These will not be our typical quality hunts. That is why we recommend excepting these hunts from consideration as juniors-only hunting possibilities, and from the formula for allocating hunt-permit tags by weapon type.”
The commission also approved the department to continue refining – through an open public process – a proposed statewide elk management strategy whereby all areas occupied by elk would be analyzed under standard criteria and classified into one of three separate management zones. These elk management zones include:
1. Standard Population Management. These areas comprised the majority of elk habitat in the state. These are areas where the presence of elk is desired for the long-term maintenance of elk populations. The management objective is to maintain elk populations at levels that provide diverse recreational opportunities while avoiding adverse impacts to the species, its habitat, or the habitat of other wildlife, and with “minimal substantiated depredation complaints.”
2. Winter Range Population Management. These are winter range areas within standard population management where the presence of spring, summer, and fall elk populations results in unacceptable levels of conflict with other public or private resources. These zones will be managed for winter elk use only. The management objective is to “substantially reduce or eliminate” spring through fall elk populations to enhance habitat quality for wintering elk and reduce other conflicts.
3. Limited Range Population Management. These are areas (5 percent of the total Arizona elk habitat) where the presence of elk is not essential to the long-term maintenance of elk populations, or where management of other species is a higher priority. Elk populations within limited population management zones will be managed for “minimum levels of conflict” with other public or private sources. This can result in maintaining low population densities, or eliminating populations as deemed appropriate.
Each proposed management zone has specific management objectives and harvest alternatives that can be “selected” to achieve specific elk population management objectives.
“The three zones also have specific goals regarding private land and conflict resolution, along with proposed action alternatives that may be selected to address conflicts,” Remington advised.
However, he added, to completely implement the new guidelines will take some regulatory changes or modifications. The public hearing process for changing or modifying regulations can take a year or more to accomplish.
The commission also approved a plan for informing the public about what is being proposed, and why. The outreach plan also has short-term and long-term components.
“In the short term, we need to inform the public about what is coming before the commission at the April meeting, and why. For the long term, we also have a challenge,” said Assistant Director Jim Burton, Information and Education Division.
Burton explained that the alternative elk management package is complex. “We will do whatever is necessary so that our customers can understand what is being proposed, how it will work, and why it is deemed necessary.”
The “Elk Harvest Management Strategy Team Report” is being posted on the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Internet Home Page at www.azgfd.com.