After five years, the once-controversial decision to allow elk hunting on Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge appears to be a win-win-win for the refuge, wildlife and hunters.
The number of elk packing onto portions of the 18,217-acre refuge has been reduced, giving the wildlife habitat they were destroying a chance to regenerate.
Hunters who pay for licenses and draw special permits for the Turnbull hunts are doing the wildlife management at no cost to the state or refuge. Their reward in the walk-in hunts is roughly a 40 percent chance to take home to their families and friends some of the best wild meat on the planet.
While refuge hunters kill around 20 elk a year, more than 100 Turnbull elk have dispersed in several groups into other areas where they’re available for wildlife watching and hunting.
“The elk appear to be spreading out at least at certain times of year and that reduces impacts in any one area,” said Mike Atamian, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department wildlife biologist.
“We’ll be doing a comprehensive aspen browse study this spring and summer,” said Mike Rule, U.S. Fish and Wildlife wildlife biologist at Turnbull. “Before the first hunting season was authorized none of the aspen regeneration was surviving elk browsing in the southwest portion of the refuge where the elk would congregate,” he said.
“Anecdotally, we see a lot of aspen stands where the regeneration is getting some heightened growth that we didn’t see previously.”
Aspen provide important habitat for a wide range of birds and wildlife, he said. The demise of aspen was among the compelling arguments to authorize hunting on the refuge for the first time in 2010.
This year’s habitat survey will help determine whether hunting that’s allowed in a limited portion of the refuge has merely shifted elk impact to other areas, he said.
“I think the elk hunting has been a benefit,” he said.
On the other hand, moose that have been gaining ground in the refuge are taking an increasing toll on aspens, dogwoods and especially on willows, he said.
“Moose are cool, a big deal for refuge visitors,” he said, noting that no moose hunting is allowed on the refuge. “But moose can be a nuisance.
“We have to fence our riparian restoration areas or the moose will wipe them out in no time.”
Last year, the lowest number of elk on the refuge was counted since an annual September aerial survey was begun in 2004.
“I don’t believe it reflects a population decline,” Atamian said. “Everyone we talk to in the area says it was one of the driest years they’ve had and movements of deer and elk seem to be different.”
The helicopter survey doesn’t offer a big-picture view of the area’s elk. “We focus on Turnbull and adjacent lands,” he said. “If they’re pushed farther south we’d miss them.
“That’s probably what happened. The surveys don’t necessarily indicate that hunting has reduced the elk population, but more likely that it’s been stabilized and somewhat dispersed.”
A group of 40-80 animals tends to roam from Benge north to the Rock Lake and Revere area, he said. “They may be together or broken up. We believe those elk are a break-off group for the Turnbull herd.”
Another group of around 40 roams the Fishtrap-Tyler area off Interstate 90.
About 70 were reported by farmers near Odessa last year.
The 2010 opening of elk hunting in Turnbull coincided with the peak of 460 elk counted in the refuge survey.
In fall of 2013, the survey found 349 elk followed the low count of 207 elk in 2014.
“Hunting in and out of the refuge could account for a little drop from 2013 to 2014, but not 140 animals,” Atamian said.
“In 2009, we had an unusually low count of 260 animals, but we knew we had 100 animals just outside the survey area at Rock Lake at that time.”
The total hunter harvest of elk within Turnbull from 2010 through 2013 was 78 animals. That includes four bulls – one bull permit is offered each year and the bull hunters have had 100 percent success.
Antlerless permit hunters have done fairly well, with success rates of 39 to 56 percent, not including last year, when the federal government shutdown prevented many hunters from entering the refuge during their designated seasons.
About 12-to-18 of the 62 antlerless permit holders each year don’t show up to Turnbull to hunt.
“Early archery hunters face dry conditions that might keep some from hunting, and sometimes hunters scheduled for later hunts have already filled their tags in the general season,” Atamian said.
“Usually, about 70 percent of those who draw Turnbull permits actually hunt. A lot of things can come up – jobs, health, family and so on.”
The 63 hunters allowed inside refuge boundaries to hunt elk aren’t the only hunters who benefit from the Turnbull hunts.
“Hunter success seems to be increasing outside the refuge,” said Gerry Hickman of the Columbia Plateau Wildlife Management Association.
The group manages hunting on more than 7,000 acres of private land in the Turnbull area, offering 30 permits to members and 30 to the general public in the state’s annual lottery drawing.
“We had 20 elk killed on our lands last year, the most since we organized (in 2011),” he said. “And I hear other private landowners in Unit 130 reporting more elk killed on their lands than in the past.”
Most of the elk movements out of Turnbull head south of the refuge, according to radio collar monitoring. But one of the collared animals was harvested by a hunter in Unit 127 south of Mica Peak.
“They moved from Turnbull toward Mica and Coeur d’Alene regularly at one time, but we haven’t seen as much of that movement in the past 10 years,” Atamian said.
Wolves have not been a factor on elk in the Turnbull area, Atamian said. Although a wolf attack on sheep was recorded this winter southwest of the refuge, no wolf activity has been recorded in the refuge, he said.
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