OLYMPIA – The season’s final elk-mortality survey on a portion of the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area determined that a total of 63 animals succumbed to winter conditions there this year.
That represents approximately 10 percent of the 629 live elk counted in the survey area last December, said Brian Calkins, acting regional wildlife manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
Calkins noted that the survey area, which includes the volcanic mudflow, serves as an index of elk mortality for the entire 2,773-acre wildlife area.
While higher than in most years, the “winter kill” of elk on the mudflow is consistent with elk-mortality rates elsewhere in the state during harsh winters, Calkins said. He noted that the highest mortality levels were recorded there in 1999, when survey teams counted 79 animals who had died as a result of cold weather and poor forage.
“Early snowfall and cold temperatures last winter, followed by late arrival of spring weather, was hard on elk and other animals throughout the state,” Calkins said. “Providing adequate forage for elk on the mudflow is especially challenging, because the area habitat is still recovering from the 1980 eruption.”
The elk-mortality survey, the last of three scheduled this season, was conducted April 25 by WDFW staff and volunteers from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Mount St. Helens Preservation Society along with 14 students from Toutle High School.
Fanning out across the mudflow, the survey team located 38 elk carcasses. Another 25 were recorded in previous surveys in January and March.
“It’s not unusual to find the highest number of mortalities soon after spring arrives,” Calkins said. “The animals are too weak from winter to survive until high-quality spring grasses start to emerge.”
Calkins noted that WDFW and local partners have been working since 1990 to improve forage for elk by seeding and fertilizing forage plants, removing weeds and controlling erosion.
To reduce competition for limited forage, the department and local Indian tribes relocated 103 animals to the North Cascades from 2003 to 2005. In addition, WDFW re-opened hunting in the area in 2004 and plans to issue more hunting permits in areas around the mudflow this year.
Elk wintering on the mudflow are a sub-population of the Mount St. Helens elk herd, with an overall estimated population of 13,350 animals, Calkins said. WDFW is currently working to complete a comprehensive management plan for that herd – the state’s largest – and is scheduled to submit a draft for public review in May. A management plan for the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area, will also be distributed for public review at that time.
“We will be asking for public comments on forage enhancement, criteria for supplemental feeding and a variety of other issues affecting the future of the herd,” Calkins said. “We invite anyone interested in the management of these animals to participate.”