Washington May Expand Hunting to Reduce Mt St Helens Herd

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) released a new management plan for the Mount St. Helens elk herd that calls for expanding hunting options to reduce the size of the herd, currently estimated at 12,500 animals.

Citing the declining availability of forage in the area, the five-year plan supports gradually reducing the state's largest elk herd to about 10,000 animals to bring it into line with the "carrying capacity" of its range in southwest Washington.

"All evidence points to the fact that this herd is being strained by loss of forage due to changes in timber practices and other factors," said Dave Ware, WDFW game manager. "The new management plan recognizes that the area's habitat cannot adequately support that many elk."

Ware noted that at least 400 elk have already gathered in the mudflow area at the foot of Mount St. Helens, where more than 60 elk died of malnutrition and related causes last winter. WDFW has scheduled a special hunt for disabled hunters in that area Dec. 11, and is planning additional hunts in other areas of the herd's five-county range next year.

The management plan, which incorporates suggestions made during a series of public meetings last summer, also calls for:

  • Continued monitoring the health of elk wintering in the Loo-Wit game management unit and the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area.
  • Collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and other landowners to improve elk habitat throughout the herd's range in Clark, Cowlitz, Klickitat, Lewis and Skamania counties.
  • New strategies for reducing impacts by elk to forestlands, farms and pastures.

Consistent with the plan, new hunting opportunities will focus on cow elk to reduce the herd's rate of reproduction, Ware said.

"A lot will depend on the willingness of timber companies and other large landowners to allow hunters onto their lands," Ware said. "We know some landowners are concerned about damage caused by elk, and opening their gates to hunters will help address that problem."

The management plan does not rule out winter feeding of elk to prevent starvation, although it cautions that the practice can concentrate elk around feed sites, spread diseases and parasites, damage vegetation and permanently change elk behavior.

The Mount St. Helens elk herd is one of 10 elk herds in Washington state. Since 2001, WDFW has completed separate management plans for seven of those herds to supplement management policies outlined in the statewide Game Management Plan.

A copy of the new management plan for the Mount St. Helens herd is posted on WDFW’s website at wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/game/elk/sthelens.htm. Hard 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.