Idaho Department of Fish and Game Conservation Officer Roger Olson has been working in the mountains of Central Idaho for 36 years. Every fall hunting season he enjoys the same two rewards.
One is finding a kid "smiling ear to ear" who's killed his or her first deer or elk.
"The other is when I catch someone (breaking hunting laws) red handed," he said. "I say to myself, 'this is what I get paid for.'"
Evening shadows crawled across the sagebrush ridges north of Richardson Summit west of Hailey Wednesday evening as Olson motored along a network of dirt roads climbing high into the Smoky Mountains. Stories flipped off his tongue like autumn aspen leaves fluttering to the ground.
He stopped periodically, stepping into a frenzied wind, to use his binoculars. He was glassing for elk and watching hunters from a distance, ensuring they were doing things by the book.
"I like to get to prominent areas and let the binoculars do the walking," Olson said.
Olson was monitoring rifle hunting activity in the area, where an uncommon early elk hunt was instituted for the first time this year. The month-long season ends today, but archery hunting continues, and standard deer and elk hunts are just around the corner, in mid-October.
The new, extremely early season started Aug. 15 in order to curb populations of elk that winter near the Big Wood River below Eccles ranch, where a private feed site attracted them for years.
"They're showing up earlier and earlier, even in mid-August, for the winter," Olson said. "So there's no way to control the population."
The problem is that standard elk hunting seasons commence in October, once the uncommonly early animals have already migrated to their wintering ground in the valley. Already, 140 elk have showed up at the site, between Hailey and Bellevue, and they probably won't leave until spring. And those elk have between 50 and 60 calves each winter, Olson said.
That all adds up to a population that's skyrocketing and no way to curb the swell except for natural predators like wolves and innovative measures like the new, early season.
But early hunting poses problems. Warm weather means the meat on killed animals will spoil faster. "And the bigger the piece of meat, the easier it spoils," Olson said.
Also, many hunters in the area are having trouble finding animals, and that may be due to the season's timing.
"Because it's been so warm, I think the success of hunters has been down," Olson said. "The elk haven't been moving around much. It'll be interesting to see what this cold snap this weekend does."
The standard hunting season generally doesn't pick up steam until the mid-October deer and elk hunts. In units 48 and 49, generally west and east of Highway 75, respectively, Deer season starts Oct. 10, and elk season starts Oct. 15.
"Party time starts when the deer season opens," Olson said. "When the elk season starts, that's another layer to the pile. A planned day off may well end up being a 16-hour day."
During "party time," trespass is a recurring problem. So is poaching. Olson ticked off stories about wild hunting infractions with ease.
In one case, he discovered five doe mule deer in the back of a truck, and it wasn't during a doe season. In another, a moose was dug from a Hailey resident's back yard.
"It's the 'same song, second verse' every year," he said. "I don't think it's getting any worse, but I don't think it's getting any better."
In addition to the ongoing pursuit of hunters breaking the law, Olson and other Fish and Game officers are attempting to get a handle on how reintroduced gray wolves are affecting deer and elk populations. Wolves were reintroduced to Idaho in 1995 and 1996, and their populations have billowed since.
And wolves have moved into the mountains west of Highway 75 in the Wood River Valley, Olson said. It's not yet a named wolf pack, but a loose-knit band of wolves has been in and out of Croy, Deer Creek and Greenhorn canyons.
The effect the predators are having on elk populations in the Smoky Mountains is difficult to ascertain, however.
"As they're finding over in the Stanley Basin with wolves, the elk aren't as vocal. They're not bugling as much. But elk populations here have been pretty stable.
"Definitely wolves prefer eating elk. That's a known. But whether it affects populations, we still haven't seen that in Unit 48 or 49. The elk in unit 48 and 49—there were around 45 calves per 100 cows. That's outstanding."
Olson's been hunting since he moved to Idaho in 1970. A Minesota native, he values abundant public land out his back door.
"I don't think I would ever live anywhere there's not a high percentage of public ground to recreate on," he said. "It's such an asset that I don't think many Idahoans appreciate that."
As the sun slipped over the sage-covered ridges to the west, Olson steered his Fish and Game issue pickup truck back toward the valley floor, toward Croy Canyon, toward Hailey. On the way back to town, he stopped to chat with a few hunters.
Twilight crawled across the land. The wind stilled a bit. And headlights seemed to emerge from everywhere, turning toward town.
Another day at the office.