A proposed plan to move up to 50 elk from the Mount Saint Helens Wildlife Area to the Nooksack River basin next fall, as part of an long-range effort to supplement the North Cascades Elk Herd, will be the topic of a public meeting March 20 in Toutle.
The meeting is scheduled to take place from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Toutle Lake Elementary School cafeteria, 5050 Spirit Lake Highway in Toutle. It will be attended by representatives of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), treaty tribal representatives and the Mount Saint Helens Preservation Society, a local citizen group. The three entities are cooperating on plans for the proposed elk relocation.
Under the tentative plan between 40 and 50 elk occupying the Mount Saint Helens Wildlife Area would be captured early next fall and relocated to habitat occupied by the North Cascades Elk Herd, which has been dwindling for decades.
The relocation cost, estimated at $50,000, would be shared jointly by WDFW and participating treaty tribes.
The March 20 meeting is the first public input opportunity on the proposed move. Persons who cannot attend and have comments or questions may contact Dick Stone, WDFW intergovernmental wildlife policy coordinator, at (360) 902-2693.
Once public input on the plan has been collected, and scientific, technical and budget review is complete, a final decision will be made whether to move forward with the relocation.
The move is being considered in part as a means to remove surplus animals from the Toutle River Valley, where elk populations have soared since the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980. The blast created prime elk habitat over a large area, resulting in a surge in the elk population.
However, as new trees have matured the amount of open elk forage area has dwindled. In recent winters, elk have died from starvation in the Mount Saint Helens Wildlife Area, where up to 400 animals winter. While some annual winter mortality occurs naturally, in recent years winter elk mortality rates have been higher than expected, according to WDFW wildlife biologists. Several years ago 79 animals died in a particularly harsh winter, while this year's toll has been estimated at a dozen animals.
WDFW and volunteer groups have been working to increase elk forage in the area by planting and fertilizing forage vegetation, and removing invasive Scotch broom.
The number of animals contemplated for relocation from the Mount Saint Helens Herd is not large enough to adversely affect the overall herd population, according to wildlife biologists.
The North Cascades Elk Herd, which ranges between Mount Baker and the Skagit River Valley, has dwindled from an average of 1,700 animals in 1984 to about 300 currently. The herd is the smallest of the state's 10 elk herds. Loss of habitat, especially in low elevations, has contributed to the herd size decline.
To help the herd rebuild, state and tribal cooperators eliminated hunting in the mid-1990s in areas where the elk transfer would take place. In recent years, habitat conditions have improved, due to efforts by volunteers, private, tribal, state and federal entities.
The WDFW North Cascades Elk Herd plan, which may be viewed on the WDFW web site on the Internet, calls for long-term augmentation of the herd.
Herd supplementation could bring the elk populations to harvestable levels within five years, as opposed to the 20 or more years required without augmentation efforts.
"Relocating elk is a way to alleviate long-standing herd population concerns in two areas of the state," said Dave Ware, WDFW game manager.
Under the proposed relocation, elk would be captured by wildlife biologists in cooperation with volunteers in late September or early October and would be transported by trucks with horse trailers to release sites on the South Fork of the Nooksack River.
"This project will benefit both herds," said Todd Wilbur, Swinomish Tribe, who chairs the Inter-tribal Wildlife Committee of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. "By working together, we can effectively protect and enhance this important resource."