SPOKANE -- With the help of volunteers and students, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists plan to capture and radio-equip up to 30 elk in southern Spokane County to learn more about them for management purposes.
Capture attempts will start this weekend on private land near Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge south of the town of Cheney. A large, corral-like trap will be set up near a haystack where elk have been regularly feeding. Captured elk will be individually herded into a handling chute, or darted with immobilizing drugs, and then fitted with radio telemetry equipment. They will then be released. Regular aerial and ground monitoring of the radioed elk will be conducted for at least two years.
Volunteers from the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council (INWC) and the Inland Empire chapter of Safari Club International (SCI), and students and staff from Eastern Washington University (EWU), are assisting with elk capture. An EWU graduate student and INWC volunteers will conduct the monitoring.
More elk may be captured and radioed in the Paradise Hill and Liberty Lake areas of southern Spokane County.
The need to know more about the elk, says WDFW urban wildlife biologist Howard Ferguson, is due to an increase in both elk and humans over the last 20 years in southern Spokane County.
"What was once rural has fast become more suburban," Ferguson said, "with the sprawl of small acreage ranchettes and sub-divisions. In addition to traditional elk damage to crops, we're also now dealing with everything from elk damage to suburban landscaping plants to motor vehicle and elk collisions."
The collision problem is of particular interest, Ferguson said, because the Washington Department of Transportation (DOT) plans to widen state highway 195 south of Spokane, which appears to run right through an elk travel corridor. DOT records show that more than 15 elk are killed by vehicle collisions in the Hangman Creek area and south each year. An expanded highway with more traffic could create an even greater danger to drivers and threaten the elk herd by fragmenting it into two isolated populations.
Ferguson hopes the information provided by the study on elk numbers, movements, seasonal habitat use, and specific travel corridors can be used to delineate locations for highway overpasses or underpasses to reduce elk losses and collisions.
He also hopes to include new elk information in the "Open Space" part of the county's Master Comprehensive Plan to guide future development for maintaining wildlife corridors.
Another objective of the study is to balance control and recreational uses of the growing elk herd.
Population control through traditional hunting has been difficult because of the growing number of residences in the area. Seasons with modern firearms have been deemed unsafe or unacceptable for over a decade. WDFW managers have tried a variety of other strategies, including bowhunting by permit and using Advanced Hunter Education graduates hunting with muzzleloaders. But harvest has generally remained too low to slow the growth of elk numbers.
"This is a classic urban wildlife management situation," Ferguson said, "and we may ultimately have to learn to live with a lot of elk."
Meanwhile, the study may help determine the "watchable wildlife" potential of the elk herd. Areas conducive to elk watching blinds, observation towers, or other viewer-friendly sites might be pinpointed from the telemetry location data. Such information could support public land acquisitions or leases under Spokane County's "Conservation Futures" program, Ferguson suggested, or development of wildlife viewing sites within already acquired public lands.
The study is partially funded for the next two years by a $21,500 Volunteer Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Enhancement grant from Washington state's Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account (ALEA).