Lack of forage limiting elk populations

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

Published:

 

It's not a lack of winter range and it's not a shortage of tree cover why elk populations are plummeting in Washington, Oregon Idaho and Montana.

The big animals simply aren't getting enough to eat.

"Most people don't even know it's an issue,'' said Bill Richardson, Washington and Oregon lands program manager for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Dozens of federal, state and utility wildlife managers, academics and others spent Friday touring portions of PacifiCorp"s 11,000 acres in the Lewis River, which are a showcase for how to manage to maximize elk habitat.

"PacifiCorp does the best job managing early seral habitat on the West Coast,'' Richardson said.

Not too long ago, it was thought winter range was the factor limiting elk populations. Thermal cover, which means trees big enough to intercept the snow, also was a concern.

"Forage is the driver today, not thermal cover,'' said Kirk Naylor, principle scientist for PacifiCorp.

Most Western Washington cow elk have a calf every other year, said Eric Holman, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.

But with good forage, they can give birth annually. Their diet in summer and fall is key.

But here's what's happening to elk habitat:

• Federal lands like the Gifford Pinchot National Forest are managed primarily to be older forest to help species such as the spotted owl. Logging, which benefits elk by creating openings in which forage grows, has been curtailed severely.

• Industrial forest lands are logged, sprayed with herbicides to reduce competing vegetation, and replanted with dense stands of timber. The trees grow quickly and allow little light to reach the forest floor and little forage to grow.

Another round of land planning for federal forests will begin in a few years and elk advocates need to be ready, Richardson told the tour members.

"A few of us saw this train wreck coming with the Northwest Forest Plan,'' he said. "We've got to get focused...We've got to keep it stirred up.''

Richardson said it is not just elk that benefit from openings in the forest.

"Are we going to have songbirds and elk for our kids to enjoy?'' he asked.

Carol Chandler, a Gifford Pinchot National Forest wildlife biologist, said federal budgets are getting cut. Forests like the Gifford Pinchot, Olympic and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie often compete among themselves and other agencies for limited money.

PacifiCorp has significant acre near Merwin Reservoir, has added habitat near Yale and is looking for property in the vicinity of Swift Reservoir, Naylor said.

The utility is four years into the settlement agreement reached as part of its federal license for the three hydroelectric dams on the North Fork of the Lewis River.

PacifiCorp prunes, thins, sprays, fertilizes and mows on its various lands in varying amounts to provide good forage for as many years as possible. It even manages an old homestead orchard.

"We're doing a lot of unique things here,'' Naylor said.

Among those was using Bounce fabric dryer sheets attached to cedar tree plantings to discourage elk from eating the young trees.

PacifiCorp planted young cedares in 18- to 20-inch tubes with the dryer sheets on top. It also tried simply tying the sheets to the top of trees.

The idea was the scented sheets would be a turn-off to the elk.

"We'll try anything,'' Naylor said. "It just didn't work. We'd find the sheets on the ground off to the side. The whole tube might be removed...They were hungry.''