OLYMPIA – In an ongoing effort to bolster a depleted elk herd in the North Cascades, state and tribal wildlife biologists plan to complete a two-phase transfer of animals from the Mount St. Helens area to the Nooksack River watershed Oct. 7-9.
Next month’s transfer of up to 40 elk will be conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the Point Elliott treaty tribes and a team of volunteers, all of whom joined forces to move 42 animals from the Mount St. Helens herd to the North Cascades in 2003.
Seismic activity at Mount St. Helens in 2004 delayed the second phase of the joint relocation effort until this year, said Dave Ware, WDFW game manager. In the meantime, the tribes captured and relocated 16 elk using a baited trap.
Ware said the transfers are designed to “jump start” efforts to rebuild the North Cascades herd, where the number of elk has declined from 1,700 animals to 300 since 1984. Those efforts include a decade-old ban on hunting and projects to improve elk forage, he said.
“Despite our other efforts, it could take 20 years to re-build the herd without augmentation, Ware said. “With augmentation, recovery time could be cut in half.”
The planned transfer of up to 40 additional elk from WDFW’s Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area is not expected to have a significant effect on the 13,000-animal herd, the largest in the state. In fact, Ware said, some biologists are concerned that the habitat in the wildlife area may not be adequate to support the number of elk that winter there.
The Point Elliott tribes have taken the lead in monitoring the elk moved to the North Cascades so far.
“We are monitoring all of the re-located elk and they are doing well in their new habitat,” said Todd Wilbur, chair of the Inter-tribal Wildlife Committee of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “We are especially grateful for the help of community volunteers, such as the Mount St. Helens Preservation Society, for their assistance in the trapping effort.”
To prepare for the final phase of the elk relocation, biologists plan to build a temporary structure involving two inter-connected corrals and livestock-loading ramp. A helicopter will be used to herd elk toward the corrals between two burlap-covered “wing walls” stretching more than 1,000 feet away from the corral structure.
Once captured, elk will move through a livestock chute where veterinarians will check the health of each animal and inject the elk with vitamins and antibiotics. Adult cow elk will then be fitted with radio-transmitting collars, which will allow biologists to track their movements.
Livestock trailers will be waiting to take the elk to the Nooksack watershed. As in 2003, only female elk and their juvenile offspring will be targeted for relocation; bull elk will be removed from the corral and released in the Toutle River valley.
Capturing and releasing elk can pose risks for both the animals and the people involved, said Ware, noting that areas around the capture and release sites will be closed to the general public.
“In 2003, one cow elk died during capture,” Ware said. “That is always a possibility, but many more elk transferred that year are now reproducing and helping to rebuild the North Cascades herd. That’s what this effort is all about.”
Note to editors: As in 2003, access to the capture and release sites will be limited to pool coverage. News organizations will not be allowed to fly helicopters over the capture and release sites. To be eligible for a pool position, reporter must contact Margaret Ainscough at (360) 902-2408 by 5 p.m. Sept.30, 2005.