More than two hours of dirt-road driving through an off-limits portion of Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge Saturday garnered a 30-second payoff for two dozen visitors on the annual refuge “Elk Tour.”
A startled stag party of 22-24 bull elk, their antlers ranging from spikes to massive seven-pointers, galloped ahead of three vans packed with wildlife watchers. Only two bulls paused briefly before following the others over a rock bluff and disappearing into the scabland pines.
“I’ve never seen an all-bull group like that on the refuge – a dozen bulls in a group, maybe, but never two dozen,” said Mike Rule, refuge wildlife biologist.
Next fall, two of those bulls could be targets for hunters.
After eight years of discussion and study, Turnbull officials have authorized hunting for the first time since the refuge was established in 1937.
A highly restrictive walk-in elk hunting season will be opened in 2009 on up to 7,260 acres normally closed to public access.
In addition, mentored youngsters will be given one weekend to hunt waterfowl from designated blinds on a 140-acre wetland within the 16,017-acre refuge.
Details for conducting the hunts, which are still being proposed, will be discussed in a public open-house meeting Thursday at the refuge headquarters. Refuge officials will accept public comment through Dec. 19.
The elk herd, which established on the refuge in the 1980s, has grown so large that it’s damaging the habitat for itself and other wildlife, Rule said.
“Helicopter surveys and telemetry studies have shown, first, that we have too many elk, and second, that the elk hide in the refuge and hammer the habitat when fall hunting seasons are under way outside the refuge,” Rule said.
“Then when the hunting seasons end, they go off the refuge to eat hay and cause problems for surrounding landowners.”
Refuge Manager Nancy Curry said meetings with landowners surrounding the refuge have found “unanimous support for limited hunting on the refuge.”
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists also support proposals to issue about 70 antlerless hunting permits and two bull permits scattered over the fall archery, muzzleloader and modern rifle seasons.
“The elk have exceeded the carrying capacity of the land,” said Howard Ferguson, WDFW district biologist, noting that maybe 40 percent of the hunters would be likely to kill an elk.
“They don’t just stand around and look at you,” observed a woman in the lead van as the bulls fled the refuge tour group.
Rule drove a short way and got out of the van to point out damage the elk are causing. A dog-hair thicket of aspen saplings was sprouting inside a living-room-size fenced “exclosure” built to keep out elk.
Several of these exclosures were built during a 2002 vegetation study.
“You can see the aspen are regenerating inside the fence, but there’s nothing outside the fence,” Rule said. “Aspen are important to songbirds and other wildlife, including elk, but the elk nip them in the bud as soon as they sprout.”
Several people on the tour said they would prefer to let hikers come in and disturb the elk rather than allow hunting in the refuge.
“It would take a lot of hikers to move elk out and we don’t have staff to monitor that,” Rule said. “But more important, we need to reduce the number of elk.”
Noisemaking devices would likely be ineffective and fencing to protect aspen would be prohibitively expensive, he said.
The 1997 National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act requires refuge managers to provide for hunting where compatible, he said.
Since 1995, the herd that harbors in and around Turnbull during fall has grown about 35 percent to a relatively stable number of roughly 350, said Ferguson, who conducts annual aerial surveys.
“We knew that the numbers of elk were becoming a problem,” said Russell Frobe of Spokane, who volunteers regularly at the refuge with his wife, Marian. “Originally, we were against any hunting there, but have since come to realize that this may be the best solution, especially if limited hunting only is allowed.”