It's August, and it's the beginning of an uncommonly early elk hunting season.
Beginning Aug. 9, hunters went to work in the mountains west of Hailey and Bellevue, an area comprised of the southeast portion of Fish and Game Unit 48. The hunt, which includes 125 cow permits, will end Sept. 15.
"It's basically in response to the growing herd of elk on a private ranch south of Bellevue," said Fish and Game Conservation Officer Lee Garwood.
Garwood said feeding operations at the private ranch have contributed to the problem. Even so, the numbers of elk arriving at the ranch rose dramatically, from about a dozen a decade ago to more than 200 the last several years. And the elk descend from the mountains early, meaning their populations are not controlled during regular October and November hunts.
"Usually by the middle of August, especially in the drought years, those elk would start flowing down there," Garwood said. "There would be 100 to 120 of them before archery season even started (in mid-September)."
Fish and Game has a formal policy discouraging private feeding of wildlife. Feed sites can be close to roads and could therefore increase accidents, according to Fish and Game biologist Regan Berkley. Also, feed sites encourage large herds of elk to cluster, and that can encourage the spread of disease. Moreover, in the long term, elk forget where to find natural winter range.
A few years ago, several of the elk wintering on the private ranch near Bellevue were collared with radio signals. Most stayed in the southeast portion of Unit 48, the mountains west of Hailey and Bellevue, the area where the hunt is centered.
This is the third year for the early-season hunt, and although it has met with normal harvest rates, the number of elk showing up in Bellevue each fall and winter has remained near the same.
"It had been increasing up to last year," Garwood said, adding that the landowner is working with Fish and Game to phase out the feeding operation.
Garwood said there are about 1,200 elk in Unit 48, which stretches north to Galena Summit. While there might have been a perception that the early-season hunt might have been easier than fall hunts because of less competition or animals not on the lookout for hunters, that has not been the case.
In fact, the August heat could complicate matters for successful hunters who must quickly remove an animal to prevent spoil.
"Elk hunting's elk hunting," Garwood said. "It's kind of a specialized hunt, and guys doing it are going to have to be prepared to deal with it."
Fish and Game said people hiking, biking or camping in the area should be aware of the early hunt and dress accordingly. Also, the early rifle season in the area will overlap with archery season, so bow hunters will want to take note.
"People who draw this hunt—most tend to be locals who understand the situation here," Garwood said. "There's a lot of private land that can lead to trespass issues if you're not careful."