The harsh winter of 2016-17 took a toll on some of Southwest Washington’s elk herds, but left others in good shape.
Hunters targeting the Mount St. Helens herd will undoubtedly see fewer elk this year during the Western Washington general rifle elk season from Nov. 4-15. But hunters targeting the Willapa Hills herd should see good numbers of animals.
District 10, Mount St. Helens
Brock Hoenes is the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s elk specialist. He reports that spring elk surveys showed a 35 percent decline in the Mount St. Helens herd.
“Late snows could have affected elk distribution,” he said, explaining how the animals could have eluded the surveys. “They could have been in heavy timbered areas.”
However, that is a slim hope. Wildlife managers decided on a cautious response and reduced the number of permits by 35 percent in the affected Game Management Units accordingly.
The health of many animals in the herd was compromised by the prevalence of Treponema Associated Hoof Disease, (TAHD). The herd has struggled with the disease, which causes deformities and lameness in the hooves. The winter survival of radio-collared infected elk was not good, and suffered a 58 percent decline.
On a positive note, the cow to calf ratio was good within the herd with about 40 calves for every hundred cows.
The herd was well over the management objectives just 10 years ago when the state was offering antlerless permits to get the numbers down. The last four years the herd has been right about where managers wanted it.
Hunters have had to deal with issues other than the herd’s size in recent years. When the timber company Weyerhaeuser closed its tree farms to free entrance and began requiring permits for access, hunters lost out on big tracts of land or were forced to pay up for access.
“In some of those units the landscape is dominated by Weyerhaeuser lands,” said Eric Holman, the WDFW wildlife biologist for the state’s District 10. “They own significant portions of all those units. Harvest is down in those units, but it’s hard to tease out whether that is because of less people hunting, or because the herd is down.”
There is a patchwork of Washington State Department of Natural Resources lands, which Holman explains are good for elk hunting. There is a mix of mature timber and open stands on those state lands.
Some of the best units for success include the Winston unit, (520), where hunters took a total of 249 elk in 2016. That total includes over 40 bulls that were six point or better. Hunters in the Coweeman Unit, (550), took a total of 157 elk. The tiny Margarete Unit, (524), gave up 66 total elk.
Willapa Hills herd
The Willapa Hills herd weathered the winter very well. The area never gets as much snow and it rarely sticks around for long. Holman said that the herd is one of the most consistent in Washington.
Brian Lewis of Twisted Horn Outfitters has been hunting the Willapa herd during the archery elk season, and he said the numbers of elk there has been solid.
“The elk hunting seams to be very consistent there. The biggest thing is getting away from people,” said Lewis.
Top units include the Willapa Hills Unit, (506), with 219 total elk harvested, and the Ryderwood Unit (530), where hunters took 225 elk in 2016.
Elk numbers in District 9 are substantially lower than in District 10 except in the Lewis River Unit, (560), where hunters took 268 total elk. 20 of those animals were 6 point or better bulls.
Hoof Disease Update
TAHD continues to be a wide-spread problem among Roosevelt elk in Southwest Washington, and the disease has shown up in other parts of the state. The disease is persistent according to Kyle Garrison, the point man in Washington’s efforts to control the disease.
The bacterial infection is similar to a condition in domestic herds of cows and sheep. The treatment in domestic animals is lengthy and the infection often shows back up after intensive treatments. It would be impossible to similarly treat elk in the wild.
The rate of infection is high within the core areas of Wahkiakum, Cowlitz, and the western half of Lewis County.
“Prevalence can be as high as 70 to 90 percent of animals in groups within the core area,” said Garrison. “As soon as you are out of the core area the prevalence goes down pretty quickly.”
The disease has been positively identified in new areas of Washington, including Skagit and Whatcom Counties. The good news is that eastern Washington elk have so far not been affected. Managers believe that habitat conditions such as dryer soils may not transmit the bacteria as easily.
While the situation is grim, Garrison notes that when other diseases have shown up in Washington they usually peak and then dissipate slowly. Also, some elk travel in infected herds but do not seem to contract the full disease. This seems to indicate some level of immunity in specific animals.
Garrison gives the public an A+ for reporting sick animals to the department. He always encourages hunters to report as much information as they can.
Unfortunately, forecasters are predicting another hard winter for this year.
Guided hunts: Twisted Horn Outfitters: 360-624-5232, www.twistedhornoutfitters.com/
Hoof disease information and reporting: wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/hoof disease/