SPOKANE - The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has closed to all uses a portion of the William T. Wooten Wildlife Area in southeast Washington’s Columbia County to keep elk off surrounding private agricultural lands.
Public access to the Cummings Creek drainage and Abel’s Ridge on the eastern part of the wildlife area will be closed through April 10. The area is accessed from a road on Abel’s Ridge, and by foot at the mouth of Cummings Creek. It is bordered on the north and east by a fence that keeps elk from moving north and east onto private property where they can cause damage to crops. The closure makes up about one-fourth of the Wooten’s 12,000 acres.
The Cummings Creek drainage is used as winter range by 250-300 elk, said WDFW district wildlife biologist Pat Fowler. In recent years, increased human activity in the area during the winter months has resulted in damage to the elk fence. Gates have been left open and elk have been harassed on the winter range.
“Up to 200 elk have been disturbed or harassed enough to move through the fence and onto surrounding private land where they trample crops and cause other problems,” Fowler said. “We’ve tried helicopter-herding to drive them back to public land with mixed success. When they can’t be herded back, the department may resort to lethal removal to prevent more agricultural damage.”
Herding, fence repair and addressing landowner complaints and damage claims has cost WDFW in time, staff, materials and direct funds, Fowler said. The situation may also have long-term elk population productivity costs.
“By late winter these animals are normally in poor physical condition,” he said. “Excessive harassment, both initially by recreationists and later by the department attempting to move them back to the wildlife area, can lead to further decline in body condition, which in turn may result in fewer new calves, lower calf survival, or even death of adult animals.”
The closure is posted throughout the area and will be enforced by WDFW enforcement officers patrolling the area. Violation of the closure is a misdemeanor punishable by fines up to $250.