Long elk season sparks concern

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KALAMA — When Tracy Page heard about two cow elk being shot near his home on New Year’s Day, he decided to investigate.

What Page found just off Italian Creek Road shocked him. Both of the elk killed were pregnant, and the hunters had left behind fetuses about a foot long.

“This is ridiculous,” Page said. “This is a little too late in the year. As a sportsman, it’s kind of disturbing to see it.”

Hunting of pregnant cows may be troublesome to some hunters, and extending hunting seasons into January also is a concern because the animals are disturbed at a time of year when they need to conserve energy.

However, hunting of cow elk in January has increased over the past few years as the Department of Fish and Wildlife continues its effort to shrink the size of the Mount St. Helens elk herd.

The goal is to reduce the size of the herd, which ranges from Interstate-5 to the Cascade crest, by 25 percent.

“These permits this year were part of an effort to harvest more animals to get the elk population in balance with its habitat,” said Pat Miller, a wildlife biologist for the department.

Miller said Page isn’t the only person to question the agency’s timing of hunting permits.

“Some people think we’ve already adjusted the population enough,” he said. “Some people think elk hunting has gone downhill since we adjusted the permits.”

The department scheduled several cow-only elk hunts in Southwest Washington this month. It granted 200 cow tags in the Coweeman game unit valid Jan. 1-16. That area includes Italian Creek Road, a side road off Kalama River Road.

Other January cow hunts include 200 permits in the Winston unit, which is generally north of Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, and 75 in the Stella unit, which surrounds Longview.

Page said the elk gut piles he observed were so close to the road that he suspects the hunters shot from the pavement, which would be illegal. The shooting also was about 100 yards from a house, he said.

But it’s the timing of the hunt that most troubles Page, an elk hunter himself.

The hunters in question may not have realized the cows were pregnant. Page said a fetus can be hard to spot amid the gut pile of a dressed elk.

“I don’t blame the hunter,” Page said. “He’s been given a permit to do it.

“I just wish they would take the cow seasons and move them closer to September,” he said –“close to when they get bred.”

Miller said that starting around Nov. 1, 50 percent to 70 percent of cow elk are pregnant, though the fetuses aren’t as obvious earlier in the season.

“When you harvest an antlerless animal you’re harvesting that animal and potentially its offspring,” Miller said.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife sets antlerless elk permit hunts as early as September, though most are in October and November.

In some areas, antlerless hunts are a response to complaints about crop or tree farm damage.

But the current hunts in the Winston and Coweeman game units are part of the effort to thin the St. Helens herd.

WDFW enacted that plan five years ago after an outcry because 150 elk starved during a harsh winter in the Toutle River Valley.

Spring herd surveys have shown that St. Helens herd population numbers have remained fairly flat and the WDFW’s original goal of reducing the herd to an acceptable level by next year probably won’t be accomplished.

“I’m guessing it’s going to take longer than that,” Miller said.

WDFW bumped up the number of cow elk permits in Southwest Washington the past two years, though Miller said he needs to see data from the just-ending hunting seasons before making a recommendation for next season’s permits.

Another issue concerning January hunts is the overall length of time when the animals are being chased.

“We hunt from September through January so you’re harassing them for that period,” said Dan Howell, who’s active in the Cowlitz Game & Anglers Club and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Howell said he has mixed feelings about January cow tags.

“I hate to see the elk harassed,” he said, though he realizes the number of animals exceeds the habitat available to them, and hunting is a way to reduce the herd size.

Though the permits are justified from a biological standpoint, Howell said, “it’s more an emotional issue than a management issue.'”

Howell pointed out that unlike in general seasons, only permit holders are allowed behind Weyerhaeuser gates during the antlerless hunts, so fewer people are disturbing the animals.

Miller said that by this time of year elk have found the “thickest, darkest cover they can find,” so January hunters have a harder time spotting them.

“We feel we have to tolerate the disturbance,” Miller said, “so we’ll accept the situation where that harvest is needed,” either because of crop damage or an unbalanced elk population.

Though January elk hunting has been expanded in some areas, the WDFW prohibits public access to its Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area in the Toutle Valley from December through April so the elk there aren’t disturbed.

During harsh winters, as many as 800 elk have been counted on the wildlife area. Heavy snow drives the animals down onto the refuge from surrounding hills, where there isn’t enough for them to eat. In severe winters, WDFW trucks in hay for the elk on the refuge.

So far this winter, elk are doing well on the wildlife area, however. Last week, biologists counted only 176 elk there. All elk spotted on the wildlife area were in “reasonably good condition,” according to an agency report.