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Landers: Fewer bull tags but new elk opportunities in Blues

Elk attracted to lure crops in the Blue Mountains. (Washington Fish and Wildlife Department)
Elk attracted to lure crops in the Blue Mountains. (Washington Fish and Wildlife Department)

Statistically speaking, elk hunters will have fewer chances to put their sights on a bull in the Blue Mountains this fall. But in some areas, they have new opportunities to bag an elk.

The surplus of branch-antlered bulls that gradually built up since Washington adopted spike-only general seasons in 1991 had hunters drooling over the big bulls roaming the Blues that sweep up from Asotin, Garfield, Columbia and Walla Walla counties.

In the past four years, hunters have been allowed some “profit taking” in the form of more “any bull” special permits being offered. The goal was to give more hunters a shot at the big mature bulls before they died of natural causes.

This fall, based on trends and late-winter surveys, the number of special elk permits has been decreased nearly 30 percent, said Paul Wik, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist for the Blues.

“With the increased harvest, the bull numbers dropped,” he said. “That was intended.

“Actually, the surveys indicate the number of bulls had already begun to decline for undetermined reasons and we had a bigger drop than expected.”

The overall ratio of bulls to cows has dropped to 22 per hundred cows, down from 28 per hundred cows two years ago.

Calf ratios also declined slightly this year, he said, adding, “We don’t know why.”

Two wolf packs being monitored in Oregon roam into Washington in the Wenaha and Walla Walla areas, but do not appear to be a factor for big-game management at this time, Wik said.

Oregon has documented cougars as having a major impact on calf elk survival in portions of the Blues, but Washington has not made that case.

The reduction in special elk permits isn’t across the board.

“Every unit and every hunt has a unique formula for determining the number of permits issued,” Wik said.

For example, last year’s archery hunters had zero success in Unit 175. That data helped trigger an increase in the number of archery quality “any elk” tags from 11 last year to 16 this year.

However, other hunts for Unit 175 reflect the general trend:

• Quality hunt tags for modern firearms hunts dropped from 10 last year to six this year, and from two to one tag for muzzleloaders.

• Antlerless hunt permit numbers didn’t change, remaining at 15 for modern firearms, 10 for muzzleloaders.

• Youth hunters got 5 antlerless permits, up from zero last year.

• Senior hunters got zero antlerless permits, down from five last year.

Despite the reduction in bull permits, the overall number of elk on the Washington side of the Blue Mountains – 5,000-5,500 (up from 4,400 in 2001) – is on target with the state’s goals, Wik said.

“The challenge is in the distribution,” he said. “We have a few more elk than desirable for landowners in some units but we’d like to have more elk in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.”

The Wenaha’s primary issue is the lack of fire needed to naturally rehabilitate the habitat. “That’s out of our control,” Wik said, noting the Umatilla National Forest has a policy of fighting fires in the wilderness; controlled burns would likely be opposed.

Meanwhile, the areas burned in the 2005 school fire in Tucannon Unit 166 and the 2006 Columbia Complex fires in Units 154, 162 166 and small portions of 169 and 175 are recovering beautifully and attracting elk.

WDFW is having good results with a program adopted two years ago to prevent elk from damaging crops on private land in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. This has resulted in landowners tolerating more elk in the area.

No elk damage claims have been submitted in the past two years, said Kevin Robinette, WDFW regional wildlife manager.

“Before that, we went 62 years in a row with damage claims, which were averaging $50,000-$100,000 of agency and sportsmen’s money in recent years as more valuable crops were planted,” said Scott Rasley, the agency’s landowner relations staffer in the Blues.

Rasley has been negotiating contracts with farmers and ranchers that give them depredation permits and assistance with herding, hazing, fencing and planting lure crops. In return, the landowners guarantee some sort of public hunting access and make habitat improvements.

In some cases, the state also helps with weed control as part of the contract using federal funding and other resources, such as Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation grants and volunteers, to attack weeds on a scale landowners might not be able to afford, Rasley said.

The state is planting food plots in some areas to lure elk away from crops such as garbanzo beans, which appeal to elk the way candy wows kids.

Hunters need to pay attention to these developments, because they’re affecting where elk hang out.

“We’re seeing an increase of elk in the Dayton Unit,” Wik said. “The food plots are being planted above the farmers’ crops, luring some elk to higher elevations to keep them out of trouble.”

Another opportunity to watch: The second of several land acquisitions in the plan to buy the 4-O Ranch up from the Grande Ronde River was approved this summer. “Getting that second phase purchased means the state now owns enough of the land to issue tags specifically for that area,” Wik said. “I expect we’ll be offering tags of some sort for deer and elk next season.”

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5509 or email

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