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Hanford Reach fire diminished elk herd

Kevin Mccullen Tri-City Herald

HANFORD, Wash. – The wildfire that scorched the Hanford Reach National Monument in August 2007 caused a small decline in the size of its elk herd.

Fewer cows bore calves last year, and hunters in the Rattlesnake Hills game unit bordering the Reach harvested a higher number of elk in the fall 2007 season because more animals ventured farther afield onto private lands in search of forage, said Mike Livingston, district wildlife manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

But the herd, estimated at 630 during its annual count earlier this year, appears in good shape, he said.

The fire, which burned 60,000 acres on the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, prompted the herd to look farther for food. And the numbers were reflected in an increased harvest by hunters in the Rattlesnake Hills, with 136 bulls killed in the fall 2007 season, Livingston said.

Wildlife videographer Gaylord Mink, who produced a video on the Hanford elk herd in 2006 for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – which manages the Reach – returned in 2007 to document the effects of the fire on wildlife.

He found the herd changed its prefire pattern of leaving the safety of the Reach – where hunting is not allowed – at night and returning before daybreak. Following the fire, Mink found many animals opted to remain on private land, a pattern that was broken only by the onset of hunting season.

“Fortunately the fire occurred after the wheat harvest, so the crop damage was minimal,” Livingston said.

But some cows couldn’t carry enough nutritional reserves into the winter and didn’t produce calves, Livingston said. The number of elk counted in winter 2007-’08 was estimated at between 510 and 550.

And hunters harvested just 43 elk in the Rattlesnake Hills in the 2008 season, he said.

“Our typical harvest on average is from 45 to 90,” Livingston said.

Heidi Newsome, wildlife biologist for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the herd in summer numbers less than 350, with some elk migrating to higher elevations in search of greener grasses.

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