A master’s degree in elk science

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  • Courtesy photo Wildlife biologist Calla Hagle of Harpster, Idaho, spent two years following late summer elk on horseback in North Idaho to learn about their movements and habits.

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    Courtesy photo Calla Hagle holds dropped elk collars that she placed earlier on cow elk in Idaho’s Clearwater region as part of a elk study she completed for her master’s degree.

  • Courtesy photo Wildlife biologist Calla Hagle of Harpster, Idaho, spent two years following late summer elk on horseback in North Idaho to learn about their movements and habits.

  • 1

    Courtesy photo Calla Hagle holds dropped elk collars that she placed earlier on cow elk in Idaho’s Clearwater region as part of a elk study she completed for her master’s degree.

By RALPH BARTHOLDT

Staff Writer

Late summer elk weren’t hard to find for Calla Hagle, for one, because she tracked them using radio collars, and she covered a lot of ground on the back of a horse.

Hagle’s master’s thesis on late summer elk movement is a quick read for hunters planning to scout for elk before the autumn bow season, which starts next month in the Panhandle.

Hagle, who grew up in Harpster, Idaho, in the middle of what was once the country’s greatest elk herd, is a wildlife biologist, but before writing her thesis on where to find elk in late summer and early fall, she practiced the art of scouting.

“Get out early, stay out late,” the former Eastern Washington University graduate student said.

Hagle’s thesis is a window into pre-hunt elk movement in a variety of Idaho environments during the early autumn when most bowhunters scour contour maps for parks, meadows and seeps, and rifle hunters contemplate weekend trips looking for spots to hunt the state’s most sought-after ungulate.

During early years spent along the South Fork of the Clearwater River, Hagel didn’t think much about career choices. Chasing wild animals was part of her existence, although her back country outings often took cerebral turns.

“I’ve only harvested one elk,” she said.

The introduction of wolves into Idaho, and the effect of their presence and predation on the Clearwater elk herd was a common topic of discussion at gas stations, grocery stores and around the kitchen table when she was a kid.

It intrigued her.

“Elk were very much on everyone’s mind at the time,” she said.

After earning an undergraduate degree in wildlife, Hagle did wildlife tech work in Council, Idaho, where she was urged to chase a master’s degree at EWU where ungulates were on the menu for a higher degree program.

It was a no brainer, she said.

“I call elk a sexy species,” she said. “Everyone always seems interested in them.”

Aside from a few of her study grids in the arid environs around Lewiston, her thesis, titled, “Elk summer-autumn habitat selection in the Clearwater Basin of north central Idaho,” is equally applicable to the upper Panhandle.

Elk stick to mid to upper elevations in late summer, according to her findings. Herds prefer areas disturbed, within the past five years, by logging or fire. They prefer brush fields near timber that contains seeps, creeks and pools as well as adequate cover with plenty of shade.

“Thermoregulation is more of a problem in the summer than the winter,” she said. “They are more sensitive to heat than the cold.”

Important elk food includes huckleberry, snowberry, ground maple, currants, white spirea, and flowering grape found in transition zones between forests and open areas, as well as a variety of forbs and grasses.

During the hot summer of 2014, elk stayed closer to dense forests at higher elevations with adequate water pockets.

Not surprising, said Hagle, whose study at least partially attributed declining herds to a changing forest environment. Less fire and logging disturbance that normally triggers the growth and maintenance of elk food, equals fewer animals.

Hunters should seek out edge communities, glass them early in the day using spotting scopes or binoculars, or crawl through neighboring timber that contains water pockets.

“Elk will still be hanging out at upper elevations, so you should start scouting a little bit higher,” she said.

Variables abound. Well-traveled roads, popular campsites and the presence of big predators will change where elk are found.

“Elk are far-ranging animals and can cover a lot of ground,” Hagle said. “But they have well-established patterns.”

One ground rule by which she abides:

“If you don’t see sign, cover a new area,” she said.

Even if the vegetation and cover indicates elk should be present, the animals may have been pushed out by people or predators.

“If you see a lot of wolf activity in the area, it’s probably not a good hunting spot,” she said.

Her thesis in book form is available through the EWU website, but there is a piece of advice not included that Hagle — who did most of her work from horseback in the Clearwater — is eager to impart to anyone with the legs and desire to find elk in North Idaho’s up and down back country.

“Get as far from roads and human habitation as you can,” she said. “You’ll see a lot more animals than if you just stick close to road.”

Archery elk hunting season starts Sept. 6 in the Panhandle and depending on the tag, can last until the end of the month.

To find Hagle’s thesis online go to http://dc.ewu.edu/theses/387.

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