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Elk numbers spike in Blue Mountains

A herd of elk crosses a ridge in the Blue Mountains of Washington during an aerial survey by state wildlife biologists.
A herd of elk crosses a ridge in the Blue Mountains of Washington during an aerial survey by state wildlife biologists.
Eric Barker Lewiston Tribune

Elk hunters in southeastern Washington are getting good news.

Blue Mountains surveys show the elk population has healthy levels of spikes and mature bulls.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently completed aerial surveys of the Blues and estimated an elk population of 5,774.

“The number is 500 to 600 higher than we have experienced the past few years,” said Paul Wik, the department’s district wildlife biologist at Clarkston.

The count, as it does every year, likely includes 500 or so elk that spend the summer and fall in Oregon. Wik said the flights don’t stick strictly to state lines because of the terrain.

Surveyors didn’t count as many bulls this year but the survey model the department uses adjusted the number upward. That is because many animals were seen in timber. Since spotting elk in timber and dense cover is more difficult than seeing them on open hillsides, the model assumes there are more elk there than were spotted by human eyes.

Wik said lower than normal snow levels and the presence of shed hunters may have compelled elk to seek cover. It’s unknown if shed hunters have an effect on elk that are trying to take advantage of green-up, new grass emerging on sun soaked slopes.

“They (shed hunters) are pretty prevalent out there. Trying to quantify what kind of effect they have is difficult to do.”

Because the model predicted healthy numbers of young elk and mature bulls, Wik said that should translate into good opportunities for hunters next fall seeking spikes and those after branch-antlered bulls.

In most Washington areas, hunters must be drawn in a lottery to hunt mature bulls with branching antlers. Those who purchase over-the-counter tags are limited to spike bulls – younger animals without branching antlers.

“Calf numbers are up and with that I suspect there should be more spikes available for harvest this fall,” he said.

Wik said much of the habitat is in good condition, especially in places that burned in 2005 and 2006. But he added there are places that have become dense and overgrown.

“Some places could use some fire, such as the Wenaha (Unit),” he said, repeating what state biologists have been saying about the wilderness unit for years.

Washington conducts its elk surveys in the Blue Mountains during green-up when elk can easily be seen grazing on the fresh growth.

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