A bumper crop is waiting for the 63 lucky hunters who drew tags for the first elk hunting season in Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.
The annual aerial survey conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife found a record number of elk hunkered inside or near the boundary of the 17,000-acre refuge.
The survey was conducted Sept. 27-28 – just after 14 archers had first shot at the elk and just before nine permit holders were allowed in for the Oct. 2-8 muzzleloader hunt.
Biologists flying a pattern over the refuge counted 66 bulls, 146 calves and 248 cows for a total of 460 elk in 95 square miles, said Mike Atamian, the agency’s district wildlife biologist.
The highest previous count was 369.
“Maybe more of the elk were out in the open where we could count them this year,” he said. “But whether that’s the case or whether there’s an increase, that’s a lot of elk in a small area. You can see why Turnbull is having problems with habitat damage from elk.”
The survey area is roughly from the tip of Bonnie Lake northward almost to the town of Marshall, and then west almost to Mullinix Road and east to Phileo Lake.
The goal of allowing hunting in the refuge is to reduce the herd or at least move it around to reduce the cattle-like impacts the elk are having on the vegetation, especially the aspen groves.
A sprouting aspen on Turnbull has little chance of eluding the mouth of an elk.
By January, when the Turnbull forage has been ravaged and hunting seasons are over outside the refuge, the elk have known they could wander out and turn their winter appetites to ranchers’ haystacks.
Hunting inside the refuge should keep the elk moving so hunters outside the refuge have higher success rates and ranchers have fewer headaches.
“For the most part, the hunters have been pleased with their experience,” said Dan Matiatos, refuge manager.
Hunters who drew Turnbull permits were subdivided into three units on the refuge separated by areas that are off-limits to hunting.
Archers assigned to hunt areas thinned and burned to reduce fire danger said they had trouble getting close enough to elk in the dry, open forest, he said.
Matiatos knows of only one or two archers who filled their tags, although turning in a head at refuge headquarters for disease testing is voluntary.
“A hunter assigned to the smaller unit said the elk weren’t there during his hunt and it would be nice to have the option to move to another area,” Matiatos said. “This is our first time at this and these are the comments we’ll consider for next year.”
One participant in the disabled hunter season under way called Matiatos on Wednesday after harvesting an elk.
“He raved about it and said it was one of the best hunting experiences he’d ever had,” Matiatos said. “It wasn’t just that he got his cow, but that he was in this beautiful setting and saw a number of other animals including moose, coyotes and turkeys.”
John Neudorfer of Cheney dittos the sentiment.
“It was an awesome experience, with elk bugling everywhere, my 34-year-old son with me, and getting to be inside the refuge,” he said.
Almost as an afterthought, he noted that he also filled his tag.
Neudorfer and his longtime hunting partner, Larry Weaver, drew buddy permits for the muzzleloader season. Each of them brought his 30-something son as the designated helper allowed under the permit.
They were among five or six muzzleloaders known to have bagged their cow – an overall success rate of at least 55 percent.
“I drive by the refuge all the time, and I’ve been into the headquarters and around the loop road, but this was a real privilege,” Neudorfer said.
The hunters opted not to go into the refuge the day before their season for the scouting day allowed under the hunt rules.
“We scouted from the road using binoculars and we found elk, so we didn’t want to take a chance of spooking them,” he said.
On opening morning, the men were into elk within a half an hour.
Larry had his down at 8:30 and John kept hunting.
“I was glad to have more time for the experience,” he said. “A bull was bugling and he had some cows with him, but they got wind of me as I tried to get close and spooked.
“Then I found a little pond where five or six cows and a big bull were swimming around and frolicking and playing. He was bugling just 50 yards away.
“My son did some calls and one of the cows came out of the water and walked uphill to within 40 yards of me. I dropped her in her tracks.
“I admit, I got pretty excited.”
But even that that sort of dream hunt isn’t immune to the work after the trigger is pulled.
After dressing and quartering his prize, the meat had to be packed to a road where they used a utility cart to pull the makings of many meals for 2 miles to the refuge gate where their vehicle was parked.
“It was hot, about 3:30 in the afternoon and I was dragging,” he said. “But I can’t wait to do it again.”
Contact Rich Landers at 459-5508 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org