OLYMPIA - A cooperative effort to bolster a weak population of elk in the North Cascades resulted in the successful transfer of 41 animals from the Mount St. Helens area Oct. 4-5.
The elk relocation project, involving staff from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Point Elliott treaty Indian tribes and volunteers, took place on WDFW's St. Helens Wildlife Area east of Castle Rock.
One cow elk died during the two-day capture operation.
"Capturing wild animals is always a dangerous and difficult task," said Pat Miller, the WDFW wildlife biologist who oversaw the capture. "While it is disappointing that an animal died, we still feel that this was a successful operation."
Two chartered helicopters herded elk from the Toutle River valley floor and slowly moved the animals toward a capture structure that had been built specifically for the relocation effort.
The structure consisted of two inter-connected corrals and a livestock-loading ramp. The helicopters herded elk toward the corrals between two tall burlap-covered "wing walls" that stretched out more than 1,000 feet away from a corral structure.
Once captured, elk were moved individually through a livestock chute where veterinarians checked the health of each animal and injected the elk with vitamins and antibiotics.
Adult cow elk were also fitted with radio-transmitting collars, which will allow biologists to track their movements and habitat uses. WDFW biologists, Point Elliott treaty tribes and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation volunteers will use the collars to electronically monitor the movements of the transplanted elk for the next two years.
Animals were moved directly into livestock trailers that had been modified for the transfer. Each trailer had a WDFW enforcement escort for the drive to the release site, near the south fork of the Nooksack River.
Only female elk and their juvenile offspring were targeted for relocation. Four bull elk that were captured in the corral trap were removed from the structure and set free in the Toutle River valley.
Two cow elk in marginal health were also released from the capture structure.
Biologists believe a number of factors contributed to the decline in the North Cascades elk herd's population, including habitat changes and over-hunting. WDFW and the tribes have forbidden hunting in the herd's core area since 1993, and hunting seasons for the area will not be established until elk populations have reached a recovery goal.
Wildlife managers said seasonal road closures have helped curb illegal hunting activity as well as disturbance from motor vehicles during the critical calving season. Additionally, habitat enhancement projects have helped improve forage conditions.
"We are pleased with the initial results of this joint two-year effort," said Todd Wilbur, Swinomish Tribe, who chairs the Inter-tribal Wildlife Committee of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. "The tribes are committed to enhancing and protecting elk populations throughout western Washington. This project will dramatically improve the health of the North Cascades elk herd."
(Also see: Mount St. Helens-North Cascades elk transfer)