Preserving hunting opportunities in the Diamond Creek Zone

By Marv Hoyt

My earliest hunting experiences were with my dad. When he was growing up on a small farm in the 1920s and ‘30s, his family hunted largely for subsistence. By the time he first took me hunting at age 12, our family didn’t depend on our harvest for the next meal. Hunting on foot was Dad’s way of bonding with each other and nature.

For the past 15 years or so, I’ve chased deer and elk on foot in the Diamond Creek area of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest north and east of Soda Springs. This is a uniquely rugged area that has been good to me: Between 2004 and 2009 I was lucky enough to harvest five elk and three deer in Unit 76 alone. This past season I bagged another nice cow elk.

But, like the Idaho Department of Fish & Game, I have been growing increasingly concerned about decreasing numbers of elk there. My experiences tell me the drop is in part a result of increasing motorized use by hunters.

Take this fall, for example. It was the second day of the late cow season and it was bitterly cold at 6 a.m. when I arrived in Unit 76. I planned to hunt a ridge where I had seen elk sign the previous afternoon.

Before starting I sat down and glassed the ridge above me, where I had seen the tracks. Though still pretty dark, I could see quite a few elk feeding in an open area above me about a mile away.

As I searched for a alternate route that would provide me with some cover, I noticed a vehicle heading down the valley toward me. About a quarter-mile away the driver stopped at a point where they could see the ridge side and the elk. I decided to wait before picking my way up a draw that would conceal my approach.

Soon another vehicle fired up and started moving toward me. I shouldered my pack and started walking toward the draw. I hadn’t gone far when the truck drove slowly past on the road below.  By then it was light enough to see the two people in the cab and the four-wheeler in the back. The driver looked up, and I could see him shaking his head in disbelief at what I was planning.

I pulled the trigger about 40 minutes later and saw the cow elk drop. Continuing on foot, it took another 30 minutes or so to get to the elk and the rest of the day to get the meat in my truck.

For me, pursuing, shooting and processing an elk on foot in rugged country reflects the true spirit of hunting. In my view, it is also the only way we’ll keep elk populations viable in this area.

There was a time when I rarely saw a vehicle in Diamond Creek. Over the past decade an ever-increasing number of hunters are using four-wheelers. I’ll concede that harvest quotas, general hunting pressure, shrinking habitat, and other issues have all played a role in the decline of elk populations. However, there is no doubt that increasing motorized use is a factor.

That’s why this past year the Idaho Fish & Game Commission approved a Motorized Vehicle Restriction Rule for the Diamond Creek Zonein an effort to improve elk numbers. The rule is an alternative to further reductions in elk permits, shorter seasons, or a combination of measures that would mean fewer hunter opportunities in Units 66A and 76.

In a nutshell, the rule restricts all motorized vehicles to open roads that are being used by full-sized automobiles. It includes appropriate exemptions for handicapped people and permits hunters to use motorized vehicles to retrieve downed game where it is allowed by a landowner or management agency.

This rule makes sense. It will maintain the most hunting opportunities for the most people while leading to an increase in elk numbers. And that’s in everybody’s best interests.

Let’s give the plan a chance so that future father-and-son hunters can bond with each other and nature — and maybe bag a trophy elk in this special corner of southeast Idaho.

Marv Hoyt is Idaho Director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He lives in Idaho Falls.