At a meeting with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) earlier this month, the Stevens County Commissioners expressed concerns about the Department’s plan to grow the local elk herd to 2,500 animals.
The WDFW plan is still in draft form and calls for growing the current Selkirk elk herd to promote hunting opportunities in Eastern Washington as well as to manage them for a variety of “recreational educational and esthetic purposes.”
According to the draft plan, the Selkirk elk herd is comprised of two sub-herds: The Pend Oreille and Spokane sub-herds. The Pend Oreille sub herd range includes all or parts of Stevens, Pend Oreille, Ferry, Lincoln, Spokane, Whitman and Okanogan Counties. The herd is thought to currently number between 1,000 and 2,100 elk. The plan notes these numbers are based on information from “sporadic surveys, harvest data, and discussions with hunters.” The plan’s goal is to increase the number of elk in the Selkirk region to 2,500.
Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart said he has concerns over the proposed increase.
“Where is the habitat for the increased number of animals? I don’t see anything in the plan that allots money to purchase habitat so it seems like the plan is to have elk in local farms in the wintertime and that is not acceptable,” said McCart. “Once an elk opens a silage bag, for instance, it is toast. There is very little detail in the plan about how to address these kinds of problems and I know the residents in the Cottonwood Creek area in Chewelah want hardcore solutions.”
At present, the plan lists human-elk conflict as a “high priority” and allots $15,000 annually in compensation money for damage to agricultural crops. Management tools used in the past have included the “Master Hunter program, landowner preference permits, landowner damage hunts, and hot spot hunts to satisfy landowner complaints.”
However, the document also notes that these methods have not always been effective, as antlerless permit hunts in particular have not always targeted offending animals. The Department notes that “other approaches that direct harvest toward specific locations of concern will be considered. Damage prevention permits may at times be the most efficient means of dealing with the problem.”
WDFW Biologist Kevin Robinette also said WDFW is working on developing a more specific habitat map that should be completed by 2016.
One of the suggested goals to promote elk habitat in the draft Selkirk Elk Plan is to promote road closures on public lands.
“Closed roads can provide roadside foraging areas and easy travel corridors, which help elk conserve energy,” the plan explains. “Reducing the number of open roads on public land may also help mitigate elk damage on nearby private lands… road closures may improve the animals’ performance, increase the amount of effective habitat, increase hunting opportunities, decrease damage to crops, increase hunter satisfaction, and decrease vulnerability of elk during the hunting season.”
Stevens County Commissioner Steve Parker said the Commissioners are not in favor of this management option.
“The openness of roads on public lands is crucial. Our people grow up in these hills and valleys and somehow when we talk about wildlife management no one puts a premium on the people. We consistently have to fight for them and we shouldn’t be in that position,” said Parker. “Closed roads might be good for elk, but they are not good for people and not good for the county.”
Another element in the elk plan is the impact of wolves to a growing elk population. The plan predicts that if wolves were only preying on elk, wolves would only consume 17 elk per wolf per year. At present, at least 8 wolf packs reside in the area outlined as Selkirk elk herd range.
The wolf is listed as a federal endangered species in two-thirds of the state west of Highway 97. The wolf is federally delisted in Eastern Washington, but is still listed as a state endangered species. As a state endangered species, the plan notes it will continue to extend “protections” to the wolf.
Other predators like bears, cougars, coyotes and bobcats were also considered in the plan, but only the cougar was noted as being able to prey on both adult and young elk.
WDFW Regional Director Steve Pozzanghera said the Department is trying to balance the concerns of some groups with the interests of others who want the Department to “grow as many elk as we can.”
“Hunter success rates are growing and this plan is trying to increase opportunities while mitigating damage,” he said.
Hunter success rates for elk from 2001 to 2010 included the taking an average of 380 elk per year, ranging from 229 to 526. Since 1985 the northeastern portion of the Pend Oreille sub-herd range has been managed as an “antlered bull only” hunting season to try and promote population growth.
As a result of the meeting between the Commissioners and WDFW, Robinette said the Department will continue to work with the county on the plan.
“We will continue to work with the County regarding their concerns, finalize the plan, and then implement it,” said Robinette. “There is no deadline to adopt the plan, but as we stated at the meeting, we have been trying to finalize this plan for some time. Since the public meetings and public input took place in December 2011, and January and February of 2012, we would like to do so soon.”
For more information, visit www.wdfw.wa.gov
By Jamie Henneman, Special to The Independent