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Better counting method used for elk in Washington

By Allen Thomas
Vancouver, Washington (AP) 11-09

State wildlife officials have begun a three-year research effort to learn more about elk populations around Mount St. Helens and elsewhere in Southwest Washington.

The work involves placing radio collars on elk, then making intensive aerial surveys to come up with better estimates of the number of animals.

For the past 15 years, elk populations were calculated using what was called the SAK (sex-age-kill) model. SAK depended on fall aerial surveys and annual harvest to estimate the components of the population, i.e., bulls, cows and juveniles.

But, according to Annemarie Prince, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, the SAK model had some problems when applied to elk populations in Southwest Washington.

“The real problem was not seeing enough elk during surveys,” Prince said.

Add to that warm temperatures in late summer, archery season under way, other recreational users in the field and trouble securing helicopters.

State biologist Patrick Miller also said the herd composition data was inadequate.

So the autumn surveys were abandoned in 2008.

This February, new research got started.

State biologists put radio collars on 55 elk (44 cows, 11 bulls) scattered across the Winston, Loowit, Margaret, Coweeman and Toutle game units.

In March and April, there were two weeks of surveys across the five game management units.

“These resighting flights are being used to generate statistically robust estimates of elk numbers in the survey area using sophisticated mark-resight models,” Prince said.

The data will be used, along with possibly deriving a “sightability-correction model,” for future surveys of the Mount St. Helens elk herd.

The biologists also made one flight over the Yale, Lewis River, Washougal and Siouxon units to collect information.

Southwest Washington is home to three of the state’s elk herds.

The Mount St. Helens herd is the largest in Washington. The two other local herds are on the south side of Mount Rainier and in the Willapa Hills.

Elk in Southwest Washington face many of the same challenges as deer. Among them:

– Less logging in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest has reduced the forage that grows between timber harvest and reforestation.

– There’s more residential use than ever along Merwin, Yale and Swift reservoirs, which are important wintering areas for elk.

– There’s increasing development throughout the lower elevations of Southwest Washington, and landowners tend to be intolerant of the damage done by elk.

Around Mount St. Helens, elk had excellent foraging in the early 1980s, following the big eruption. Then the industrial forest companies began massive reforestation.

Now, almost three decades later, these second-growth forests allow little light to reach the ground, meaning less quality food for the elk.

Even where logging is happening, the use of herbicides often lessens the forage available for elk.

The elk on the upper Toutle River mud flow are highly visible, and get lots of attention in years like 2008, when about 160 animals died during the winter at the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area.

To help those elk, the state and volunteers have planted and fertilized forage, plus attempted to stabilize the course of the North Fork of the Toutle River to lessen the erosion of feeding areas.

Beginning in 2006, the Department of Fish and Wildlife boosted the number of elk permits in game units around Mount St. Helens to cut the herd size from about 12,500 down to 10,000, a number believed better suited for the habitat available.

“With the recent harsh winters and increased permit levels with the Mount St. Helens herd, we believe we are approaching our management goals,” Prince said.

State biologists also are trying to get a handle on “hoof rot” among elk in Southwest Washington.

For more than a decade, there have been sporadic reports of overgrown and deformed hooves in elk locally, causing the animals to starve and die.

The number and geographic range increased dramatically in 2008, Prince said.

Samples from elk with deformed hooves, plus healthy elk, were taken for a variety of tests including radiology, trace minerals, bacteria, viruses and parasites.

“No samples had any major abnormalities,” Prince said. “The problem seems to be increasing in the region. More collections and samples are needed before a formal opinion can be made about the cause.”

Much less is known about the Willapa Hills elk herd.

Commercial forest owners have increased logging in the past five years in Willapa Hills unit 506 and Ryderwood unit 530, increasing forage somewhat.

Prince said the agency hopes to apply the population monitoring knowledge learned by the Mount St. Helens elk research to the Willapa Hills herd.

The South Rainier herd is estimated to be about 1,080 elk, according to Puyallup tribal biologists.

The tribe also is working with collared elk and aerial surveys to attempt to develop models for estimating the population.