OLYMPIA – After a strong harvest in 2012, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) game managers are again forecasting good elk hunting opportunities statewide when the 2013 modern-firearm general season opens Saturday (Oct. 26) in Eastern Washington and next Saturday (Nov. 2) in the western part of the state.
Dave Ware, game manager for WDFW, said last year’s elk harvest was the best since at least 1997.
"Our elk harvest has consistently been between roughly 7,000 and 8,800 animals," said Ware. "But last year, Washington hunters took 9,162 elk, both bulls and cows. It was definitely our best season since at least 1997 when we moved to our current and more reliable method for determining harvest numbers."
Ware said the last few years have been good statewide for calf recruitment and adult survival, adding that all of the state’s major herds are at or above population management objectives. As such, he predicts good opportunities throughout Washington’s elk country.
"News across the state is pretty good, especially for Eastern Washington elk tag holders," said Ware. "The Yakima Elk Herd’s productivity began declining several years ago, so we backed off our antlerless tags. Productivity has since increased, and, based on last year’s calf survival, I think hunters can expect to see good numbers of spikes in 2013."
News is similar in the Blue Mountains, if not better.
"Our surveys indicate we’re seeing 40 percent survival on spike elk in the Blues, which is excellent," said Ware. "A more typical number we expect to see is 20 percent post-hunt survival. This means there are plenty of elk escaping hunters, due in part to steep terrain. It looks like we should have very good numbers of spike bulls available in the Blue Mountains again this year."
The Colockum Elk Herd is also above WDFW’s management objective and increasing. That should mean increased antlerless tag opportunities in the future, especially with the temporary decline in habitat conditions resulting from this summer’s catastrophic wildfires that swept across the Colockum and L.T. Murray wildlife areas, as well as surrounding lands.
"The effects of the fire shouldn’t affect the 2013 season much," said Ware. "The new, green grass growing on burned landscapes is like candy to elk, so hunters might want to look in and around burned areas close to timbered cover. As always, scouting is important, and so is the ability to adapt to different access options and/or elk distribution and behavior caused by fires and post-fire flooding. Hunters should also be mindful of the true-spike regulation in place in these GMUs."
Ware also mentioned the Selkirk Elk Herd, which is comprised of many small bands of elk spread out throughout the state’s northeastern corner. Numbers appear to be stable, said Ware, but scouting is especially key to success in this part of the state due to vast habitat and small, roaming bands of elk.
"Hunter success has held strong over the last several years in Northeast Washington," Ware said.
In Western Washington, the St. Helens Elk Herd continues to be the state’s largest, despite hoof disease affecting an undetermined minority of the total population.
"Hunters should be aware that if they follow basic techniques for caring for game, animals infected with hoof disease appear to pose no threat to human health based on all of those examined so far," said Ware.
WDFW is investigating potential causes and solutions to address elk hoof disease in Southwest Washington and is asking hunters to report any hoof deformities they encounter via the department’s website. http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/hoof_disease/.
"Elk numbers remain very high, and we expect good hunter success," said Ware. "With some private timber lands going into fee access, it will become increasingly important to plan ahead, scout, and develop alternatives going forward. Still, there is plenty of access available."
Ware said WDFW is continuing to seek a range of solutions to maintain free or inexpensive access on private timberlands in Western Washington.
Meanwhile, Southwestern Washington’s Willapa Hills Elk Herd is at objective and should offer good opportunities for three-point or better Roosevelt elk bulls, Ware said. Some hunters may be frustrated by a lack of drive-in access in places, but Ware said those willing to walk behind closed gates – where legal – stand the best chances of encountering and harvesting elk.
"There’s something about the magic number two miles behind a closed gate to make elk feel secure," said Ware.
He extends this same advice to hunters pursuing three-point or better Roosevelt elk bulls from the Olympic Herd, whose population is also stable and at objective.
"The lower elevations receive a lot of pressure," Ware said. "Older age-class bulls are typically found in higher elevation roadless areas or two or more miles behind closed gates where they feel safe."
Ware reminds hunters of WDFW’s Private Lands Hunting Access Program (http://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/hunting_access/private_lands/), as well as the agency’s new GoHunt! mapping feature (http://apps.wdfw.wa.gov/gohunt/), which includes layers displaying public and private lands, game-management units, and other useful information.
Along with securing legal access, hunters are advised to make safety their top priority.
"Statistics show that hunting is a very safe sport, especially compared to most other outdoor activities," Ware said. "Hunters are trained to make sure they have a safe shot, and non-hunters can help ensure their safety by making themselves visible in the field."
All hunters using modern firearms - or in areas open to hunting with modern firearms - are required to wear hunter-orange clothing as specified by state law. Ware suggests hikers, mushroom pickers and others in areas open to hunting wear bright, colorful clothing to maximize their visibility, as well.
Fire danger has mostly subsided for the year, but caution with campfires is always important. The state’s only remaining campfire ban remains in effect through Oct. 31 at the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area in Eastern Washington’s Grant and Adams counties.
Ware reminds hunters of WDFW’s third-annual 2014 Big Game Regulations Pamphlet Contest. This year’s theme is hunting camps, and the winning photo submitted will adorn the cover of 475,000 pamphlets next year. Photos must be submitted via the WDFW website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/sharephotos/contest.html.
"Please remember to bring a camera to snap a few quality photos of your elk camp," said Ware. "Even if you don’t win the contest, pictures of camp memories are a precious commodity to most of us who hunt."
Before heading out into the field, hunters should always double check the Big Game Hunting pamphlet for details.