Harsh Winter Takes Heavy Toll on Washington Elk
Harsh winter conditions took a heavy toll on elk in the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area in recent months, even though wildlife managers trucked in tons of hay to feed them.
According to preliminary data from a survey conducted today, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists and two-dozen volunteers counted approximately 150 elk that had succumbed after months of driving rain, cold temperatures and heavy snowfall that extended into April.
Those conditions were a major factor in this year's elk-mortality survey, which documented the highest number of "winter-kill" elk on record in the state wildlife area, said Brian Calkins, WDFW wildlife area manager. The previous record was in 1999, when survey teams counted 79 elk that died of malnutrition and related causes.
"Winter weather always takes a toll on elk and other wildlife, but conditions were especially tough in the south Cascades this year," Calkins said. "Even now, there's twice as much measurable snow in the watershed as in an average year."
The survey area, which includes a portion of the volcanic mudflow in the 2,773-acre wildlife area, serves as an index of elk mortality for the Mount St. Helens elk herd, Calkins said. WDFW has also been notified about elk mortalities elsewhere in the herd’s five-county range that are not reflected in the survey results, he said.
"The survey is an indicator of mortality levels throughout the herd," Calkins said.
In January, concerned about heavy snowfall and predictions of a hard winter, WDFW wildlife managers initiated an emergency feeding program – for the second straight year – for elk in the Toutle River Valley at the base of Mount St. Helens.
By mid-April, they had distributed approximately 131 tons of hay to up to 800 elk that congregated daily in the area. Wildlife managers believe the high number of elk mortalities recorded in the survey may be due to the large number of animals drawn to the wildlife area by the emergency feeding program and the deep snow at higher elevations.
"Artificial feeding may have helped some elk through the winter, but it's not without its drawbacks," said Sandra Jonker, regional wildlife program manager. "The main problem is that it tends to further concentrate these animals, which can spread disease and disrupt natural behavior."
Describing artificial feeding as a "stopgap measure," Jonker said high numbers of elk and a decline in summer-range forage have left many animals chronically stressed by malnutrition throughout the herd's range. In response, wildlife managers have been working to reduce winter elk mortalities by bringing the overall size of the herd into line with available natural forage.
As part of that effort, the department significantly expanded elk-hunting opportunities throughout the region last year, which included more than doubling the number of special hunting permits in the wildlife area itself.
Those changes are consistent with goals outlined in a plan that calls for reducing the size of the Mount St. Helens elk herd – the largest of the state’s 10 elk herds – from approximately 12,500 animals to 10,000 over a five-year period.
In addition, wildlife managers have worked with volunteers to replant trees and shrubs along a stretch of the Toutle River, and will be applying 10 tons of lime and fertilizer to help increase forage for elk in the river valley this year. Seventy acres of winter forage area also are being rehabilitated and wood structures are being installed to reduce the loss of additional winter range forage.
"These changes will take time, but we're making progress," Jonker said. "Artificial feeding is not a long-term answer to the issue of too many elk and a shortage of available natural forage."
A copy of the Mount St. Helens Elk Herd Plan is posted on WDFW's website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/game/elk/sthelens.htm. Paper copies may be obtained by contacting the department at Wildlife Program, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 600 Capitol Way N., Olympia, WA 98501-1091.