OLYMPIA – A stretch of cold and wet winter weather – beginning with December rainstorms and floods – has prompted the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to initiate a winter feeding program for elk in the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area.
To help the animals survive the winter, WDFW will begin feeding hay this month to more than 400 elk gathered in the 2,744-acre wildlife area at the base of Mount St. Helens, said Steve Pozzanghera, deputy assistant wildlife director for the department.
Like last year, the feeding program is designed to serve as a stop-gap measure until the St. Helens elk herd – the state’s largest – can be brought into balance with available forage, Pozzanghera said.
“Heavy rainstorms and floods have already washed out some forage areas, and weather forecasts call for unusually cold, wet weather for the remainder of the winter,” he said. “Tests of elk harvested during the fall hunting season indicate that many are again in a “lean” body condition, reducing their chances of surviving a hard winter.”
Wildlife biologists recently counted 439 elk in the Mount St. Helens mudflow area – already more animals than the area can support in winter, said Dave Ware, WDFW game manager. To reduce stress on those animals, the department closed public access to the wildlife area Dec. 1 through April 30, he said.
The duration of this year’s feeding program will depend on habitat and weather conditions, which will be monitored throughout the cold months, Ware said. Last winter, the department fed approximately 162 tons of hay to elk in the wildlife area. The total cost of the effort, including distribution, was approximately $63,000, he said.
“A single elk can consume eight to 10 pounds of hay per day, so it adds up quick,” Ware said.
Ware said harsh weather isn’t the only reason WDFW decided to initiate this year’s feeding program. In recent years, the sheer size of the elk herd combined with diminishing forage habitat has left some animals chronically stressed by malnutrition, he said.
In late 2006, WDFW adopted management plans for the St. Helens elk herd and the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area, which provide strategies for a long-term solution to the problem.
A major strategy of the elk herd plan (http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/game/elk/sthelens.htm) was that WDFW should expand hunting opportunities to reduce the size of the herd from 12,500 to 10,000 animals over a five-year period. During the past year, the department added 60 special hunting permits in the wildlife area, 1,300 additional hunting permits in the St. Helens Tree Farm and worked with the Weyerhaeuser Co. and dozens of volunteers to expand motorized access to hunting in that area.
Meanwhile, the department has been working to expand the availability of forage plants for elk, as provided in the new management plan for the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area (http://wdfw.wa.gov/lands/wildlife_areas/management_plans/index.htm). WDFW recently stabilized the bank of the Toutle River in a key section of the wildlife area, and plans to revegetate about 50 acres in that area over the next few years.
“These plans have only been in place for a year, so we haven’t yet achieved the herd reductions or the broad, landscape-level habitat improvements that would improve winter conditions for elk,” Ware said. “But the long-term objective is to transition out of winter feeding and maintain the local elk population at a level that can be supported by natural forage.”