Category: Game Management and Conservation
Published: September 2018
The North Cascades elk (Cervus elaphus) herd (commonly referred to as the Nooksack elk herd) is the smallest of ten herds formally recognized and managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and is the northernmost herd in western Washington. Despite the herd's size, it is an important resource providing recreational, aesthetic, and economic benefit to Washington citizens. This includes Native American people of the area who value elk as a cultural, subsistence, and ceremonial resource.
The current population stems from successful augmentations in 1946 and 1948 that included elk from eastern and western Washington. WDFW believes the elk population peaked in the mid-1980s, at which time there were between 1,400 and 2,000 elk. A dramatic population decline occurred during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when WDFW believed the herd reached a low of a few hundred elk. Translocations of 98 additional elk from Mount St. Helens (MSH) between 2003 and 2005 appear to have contributed to recent increases of the North Cascades herd.
At this time, annual composition surveys suggest that the current population within the Game Management Unit (GMU) 418 (Nooksack) and that portion of GMU 437 (Sauk) north of the Skagit River between Lyman and Concrete is 1,269 (95% C.I. = 1,170-1,379) animals. Additionally, biologists' observations and other anecdotal information suggest that an additional 200-400 elk occur elsewhere in GMU 437, primarily south of the Skagit River between Sedro Woolley and Marblemount, and at least 100 more within the Sauk River Valley south of Rockport.
Factors that managers believe contributed to declines in the North Cascades elk herd in the 1980s and 1990s include timber management practices, increased elk vulnerability associated with an expanded road network and over harvest. Since the late 1990s, WDFW and cooperators have implemented several projects to address access management, coordinate timber harvest activities on state lands, and enhance elk habitat. Coupled with a hunting moratorium in GMUs 418 and 437, these projects appear to have contributed to recent population increases.
The primary purpose of this plan is to provide direction for future management of the North Cascades elk herd. The plan will also serve as a valuable reference document and guideline for WDFW, the Point Elliott Treaty Tribes (hereafter referred to as "Tribes"), agency cooperators, private landowners, and the public. As management priorities change, it is WDFW's intent to update this plan as needed. The primary goals of the North Cascades Elk Herd Plan are:
- Preserve, protect, perpetuate, and manage elk and their habitat to ensure sustainable populations
- Manage elk for a variety of recreational, educational, and aesthetic purposes including hunting, wildlife viewing, photography, scientific study, and cultural and ceremonial uses by Native Americans
- Manage elk populations for a sustainable annual harvest
- Minimize property damage and public safety risks associated with elk
The plan identifies specific objectives and strategies that address specific challenges in managing the North Cascades elk herd. WDFW has identified the following objectives:
- The population objective for the North Cascades elk herd is 1,700 - 2,000. The population objective includes the elk within Skagit River Valley, the Acme Valley, and areas where WDFW's intent is to minimize elk/human conflicts and ensure public safety (see Objective 5).
- By 2018, implement a monitoring strategy that will provide a sound basis for herd size estimation using acceptable, cost-effective methodologies.
- Increase the geographical area available for hunting on public and private lands by at least 100 square miles by 2021.
- Minimize public safety risk by reducing the average annual number of elk-vehicle collisions along the State Route 20 corridor between Sedro Woolley and Marblemount by 50% over the next five years.
- While attempting to achieve the population objective, reduce the number of elk caused damage complaints on private lands in the North Cascades elk herd area over the next five years.
- Annually cooperate and collaborate with the Tribes to implement the North Cascades Elk Herd Plan and to coordinate season setting and herd management in traditional hunting areas.