LEWISTON – Elk in Washington’s Blue Mountains continue to show signs of trouble, and wildlife officials don’t see any quick remedies to the problem.
Aerial surveys conducted this spring produced a population estimate of about 3,900 animals. That is an increase of 300 compared to the 2021 survey. The higher number, however, is still well below the population objective of 5,500 and likely reflects more favorable conditions during the survey or the movement of elk from Oregon into Washington and not actual population growth, said Paul Wik, district wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Clarkston.
That is because the survey produced a ratio of 17 calves per 100 cows, one of the lowest recorded in the Blues over the past two decades. Elk herds require a calf-to-cow ration of about 25-to-100 just to remain stable, Wik said.
Wik and his colleagues also placed tracking collars on 125 newborn elk calves last spring. Only nine of those survived the year, and the majority of deaths were attributed to predation, with 70% caused by mountain lions. The study will be repeated this summer.
“I don’t think the difference of 300 elk between the two years is something that is significant, but the low calf ratio is significant and it does align with our collar data – which is two sources of data that say the same thing,” Wik said.
He added things like weather conditions can affect the survey. If the weather is bad, elk may be more inclined to be in thick timber instead of open slopes. Or if snow levels are low, they may be on bare ground where they are harder to spot. Some of the survey areas share a border with Oregon, and elk move freely across the state line.
“The calf ratio is below the level necessary to replace natural mortality or hunting,” Wik said.
The agency has reduced branch antlered bull tags in the Blues and eliminated cow hunting not associated with agriculture damage.
Wik said the survey estimated about 20 bulls per 100 cows, which is down from the previous three surveys. Cow numbers were stable but haven’t recovered from the winter of 2016-17 when the population dropped by about 600 animals.
The agency believes too few young elk are surviving for the population to rebound. Wik said that seems pretty consistent through the various game management units.
“We think our largest issue is calves not making it to 1 year of age,” he said.
Wildlife officials have few levers to pull to turn things around in the short term. Habitat improvement projects take many years to bear fruit. While wildfires have damaged some habitat in the places where they burned extremely hot, they also have improved other habitat.
Predation is a significant problem, but reducing predator numbers is unlikely. Wolves are protected as endangered by the state and can’t be hunted. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission canceled this spring’s black bear hunting season, and several commissioners signaled they are leery of increasing hunting quotas for mountain lions.
Jim Nelson, a Garfield County commissioner and retired Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officer, who is a member of a Blue Mountain elk stakeholder group convened by the agency, said he’s frustrated.
“We all know the problem is predators,” he said. “They took away our spring bear hunt entirely which was at least an option to remove a few bears. Cat numbers is the biggest factor, and we can’t do much there.”
Justin Dixon, another Garfield County commissioner and member of the stakeholder group, said it’s difficult being a group member when its recommendations are ignored.
“We give recommendations and then the staff and the commission, they don’t even accept it. That is what is frustrating to me,” Dixon said.