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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Blue Mountain elk herd treads water

A herd of elk in the Blue Mountains is seen from the air.  (Courtesy of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)
By Eric Barker Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – The elk population in Washington’s Blue Mountains is stable but remains well below objectives, according to the latest survey by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Biologists from the agency did an aerial survey over the mountains in the state’s extreme southeastern corner during the first two weeks of March and estimated a population of 3,999. Two years ago, they estimated 3,901 elk roamed the Blues.

“So roughly an inconsequential difference between the two,” said Paul Wik, district wildlife biologist at Clarkston. “We did see a slightly better (calf-to-cow) ratio of 22.3, which is still below the 25 we would like to see at a minimum for the population to be stable or grow.”

Wildlife biologists measure calves per every 100 cows. The ratio has hovered in the high teens over the last few surveys.

Wik noted that calf-to-cow ratios varied depending on location and the core game management units (162, 166 and 175) of the Blues produced a ratio of 19 calves per 100 cows. In units along the Grande Ronde and Wenaha rivers, the ratio was 27 to 29 calves per 100 cows.

The department has a population objective of 5,500 elk in the Blues but calculates it would be higher if not for concerns over the crop damage the animals can cause. Exactly how to manage the herd has been a topic of debate in recent years.

A project monitoring elk calf survival has shown predators like mountain lions account for about 77% of the mortality experienced by calves during their first few months of life. In the first year of the study, only about 13% of 100 calves survived. In the second year, survival increased to 47%. The agency expects to release an update on the work later this spring or summer.

Hunters and county commissioners from Asotin, Garfield and Columbia counties have pressed the department to provide relief by lengthening the cougar hunting season, among other things. But the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is divided over predator management. One camp wants to limit hunting of mountain lions and black bears and some individual commissioners have suggested the agency’s elk objective for the Blue Mountains is too high. Another camp has expressed a desire to help the herd.

Wik said survival of older calves has risen over the past few years and that should translate into slightly more spike bulls being available for this fall’s hunting season. The bull-to-calf ratio of 21:100 is up modestly but still lags behind those tallied a decade ago when the number of calves was often in the high 20s to low 30s.

“It’s not going to be comparable to 10 years ago,” Wik said of the number of spike and mature bulls available this fall.

Despite about one week of temperatures that plunged well below zero, the rest of the weather last winter was relatively mild.

“We had as much green up as I’ve ever seen in the fall leading into the winter, which should have been really good for their going-into-winter condition. We had a really light snowpack most of the winter, so nothing should be influencing survival. We didn’t see any calves die.”