OLYMPIA – After two months of severe weather, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) will begin feeding elk at the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area and is ordering additional hay for existing feeding stations in central Washington to help the animals survive the winter.
Meanwhile, the department is monitoring the effect of weather and snow conditions on elk and deer herds around the state.
“Winter weather always takes a toll on elk, deer and other wildlife, but conditions are especially tough in some areas this year,” said Steve Pozzanghera, deputy assistant director for the WDFW wildlife program. “The combination of heavy rain in November and early snowfall has left some animals in poor condition to survive the winter.”
By the middle of this month, WDFW will begin feeding hay to about 300 to 400 elk gathered on the 2,744-acre wildlife area at the base of Mount St. Helens, Pozzanghera said. To reduce stress on those animals, the department has already closed public access to the area through April 30.
Although most elk in the wildlife area appear healthy, tests of some animals’ body fat indicate they may not survive the winter, said Dave Ware, WDFW game manager.
Last year, approximately 60 of the 600 elk in the wildlife area died of malnutrition and related causes when cold winter conditions were followed by an exceptionally cold, wet spring on the mountain.
Most of those animals died in spring, when it was too late to introduce supplemental feeding, Ware said. The situation is different this year, because the severe weather arrived early.
“Because the rough weather came early this season, we have time to address the situation while there’s still time to do some good,” said Ware, noting that weather conditions will determine how long WDFW will continue this year’s feeding program.
Approximately 300 tons of hay would be required to feed elk at the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area through March, Ware said. He estimated the cost at $85,000, including purchase, delivery and distribution.
That amount is part of a $265,000 supplemental funding request WDFW will make to the state Legislature. The largest portion of the funds would pay for additional hay for existing feeding sites in central Washington, including the Oak Creek Wildlife Area. The department feeds elk in some areas of central Washington where the animals have lost winter range to human uses.
Ware said WDFW biologists recognize there are drawbacks to artificial feeding, which can concentrate animals, spread disease and disrupt natural foraging behavior. However, wildlife managers also recognize that people become distressed by reports of hungry animals.
“The public is concerned about these animals, and so are we,” Ware said. “Winter feeding can temporarily ease conditions for some animals, but feeding elk in the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area is only a stopgap measure until the overall size of the herd can be brought into line with available natural forage.”
The largest of the state’s 10 elk herds, the Mount St. Helens herd numbers some 12,500 animals ranging across a five-county area. In recent years, high elk numbers and diminishing forage habitat have combined to leave some animals chronically stressed by malnutrition throughout the herd’s range, Ware said.
A new management plan approved by WDFW last month calls for expanding hunting opportunities to reduce the herd to 10,000 animals over the next five years.
Consistent with that plan, WDFW more than doubled the number of special hunting permits in the wildlife area for hunters with disabilities last month and plans to recommend additional hunting opportunities throughout the herd’s range when the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission meets in spring to establish this year’s hunting seasons, Ware said.
The herd-reduction effort hinges on improving access for all hunters, Ware said. The department is working with timber companies and other area landowners to open their lands to hunters.
A copy of the new management plan for the Mount St. Helens herd 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.