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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Alarming mortality seen in Blue Mountain elk calves, according to preliminary study findings

A group of cow elk and their calves heads back for the hills after getting a drink in the South Fork of the Clearwater River.  (Eric Barker)
A group of cow elk and their calves heads back for the hills after getting a drink in the South Fork of the Clearwater River. (Eric Barker)
By Andy Walgamott Northwest Sportsman Magazine

Over 80% of Blue Mountains elk calves collared by a the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for a study launched this spring have died, an “alarming mortality rate.”

WDFW Director Kelly Susewind broke that news Friday morning to Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission members, drawing a shocked reaction among some, but also cautioned that the data was raw and needed to be worked through instead of jumping to conclusions as his agency considers what might be done to help the herd.

He told members of the citizen panel there were 104 mortalities among the 125 calves that had been collared beginning in May to evaluate why the herd is not bouncing back from the harsh winter of 2016-17.

This year’s count shows elk numbers had dropped to 3,600, which is – at a minimum – a 30-year low.

Figuring out what’s going on and addressing it is critical, as WDFW said the herd “plays an important role in this region’s ecosystems and provides the public with hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities.”

Some strongly suspect the Blues’ predator guild – which now includes four known wolf packs on the Washington side alone, along with black bears and cougars – but abiotic factors like drought leading to nutritionally poor habitat may also be weakening elk, making them more vulnerable to predation.

“Having done ungulate management now for two decades, it’s never just predation,” Anis Aoude, agency Game Division manager, told me last spring when the study was launched.

Elk in Washington’s as well as Oregon’s Blues “are not generally in great condition,” he said. “They’re kind of skating by. Get some bad years and it’s easy for them to slip.”

This summer also saw large-scale wildfires in portions of the study area.

Friday morning Aoude echoed Susewind’s comments to the commission.

“It’s a higher rate than you would expect to see normally,” Aoude said about the calf loss.

He said that survival rates vary, but the literature shows that annually it’s typically around 50%.

WDFW termed Blues calf recruitment rates of 17-21:100 cows since 2017 “poor to marginal,” and the 83.2% loss seen with this year-class that has still to experience its first winter means 2021’s level will surely be below that.

Aoude said there was some initial information on specific causes of deaths, but that it hadn’t been tabulated yet.

“What (Susewind) relayed today is what we have,” he said.

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