OLYMPIA – A flagging elk herd on the north side of Mount Rainier will soon get up to 100 new recruits from several sites in western Washington under a major elk relocation effort scheduled to get under way this weekend.
Weather permitting, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) plans to start capturing elk in the Chehalis River Valley on Saturday, March 9 and moving them to release sites along the upper Green River in southeast King County.
With the assistance of nearly 100 volunteers – many towing horse trailers to transport the elk – agency wildlife managers hope to relocate up to 20 cow elk from each of five capture sites in Grays Harbor, Mason, and Pacific counties by March 20.
All five capture areas have thriving elk populations, prompting a growing number of complaints from area residents about property damage, said Jack Smith, area WDFW wildlife manager.
"We see this as a win-win situation," Smith said. "By moving these elk, we can take them out of areas where they are causing trouble and use them to help rebuild the north Rainier herd, which has been struggling in recent years."
Because the relocation involves the use of a helicopter, Smith said the operation could be delayed by a day or two in the event of high winds or heavy rain.
A 27-year veteran of wildlife management, Smith has a pretty good idea what is involved in moving 100 female elk, each weighing 600 to 750 pounds. In 1994, he coordinated the transfer to 17 elk from the Sequim area to the Dosewallips River Valley and then supervised the movement of 24 animals from the Chehalis Valley to Skokomish River Valley in 1995.
For the upcoming relocation, Smith and another veteran WDFW biologist plan to tranquilize each animal marked for transport with a dart fired from a helicopter. Ground crews will then secure each downed elk to a pallet, which will be hoisted to a nearby staging area where it will be examined by WDFW's veterinarian.
Volunteers from organizations including the Eyes in the Woods program, KBH Archers and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation will keep the animals cool while blood samples are taken to check for disease and pregnancy. A fecal sample will be taken to check for parasites. Tooth and DNA samples will also be taken to determine each animal's age and genetic makeup.
Most elk will then be fitted with radio transmitters so biologists can monitor their movement and evaluate the relocation effort.
"It's a lot of work, but it can also be a very effective management strategy," said Rocky Spencer, the other WDFW wildlife biologist who will help to tranquilize the animals. "We really couldn't do it without the volunteers."
Spencer, who has 17 years of experience in wildlife management, said the transfer is a key part of WDFW's long-term rebuilding plan for the north Rainier elk herd, which dropped below the department's population goals in the mid-1990s and has been slow to recover.
Under agreement with area tribes, hunting has been prohibited in the Green River watershed since 1997 for both tribal and non-tribal hunters. However, due to habitat loss and other factors, this year's estimated elk population of 170 animals remains well below the department's management goal of approximately 500 elk.
"A large percentage of the north Rainier herd is made up of Rocky Mountain elk brought into the area from Yellowstone National Park in the early 1900s," said Spencer. "We've done a lot of work to improve elk habitat in the area, and we're hoping that our native Roosevelt elk will fare better."
Spencer said the relocation plan has drawn strong support from area Indian tribes and landowners, including the City of Tacoma which owns the land near the Howard A. Hanson Dam where the elk arriving from the three southwest counties will be released.
The Muckleshoot Tribe has committed both funding and volunteers to support the relocation, Spencer said. Others indicating support for the project include the U.S. Forest Service, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Weyerhaeuser, Plum Creek Timber and the Giustina Timber Resources.
"We're really pleased to see this kind of support for rebuilding the north Rainier herd," Spencer said. "The north Rainier elk herd really needs a jump start, and that's just what we're planning to do."