Tag Archives: Grande Ronde

Tough Winter For Elk, Deer, Even New Pronghorns In Southeast Washington

Editor’s note: Updated April 11, 2019 with comments from WDFW biologist Michael Atamian

The six-by-seven bull rose with the rest of the herd of 150-plus elk that bitterly cold March morning outside Walla Walla and began trudging south through the snow.

But then as Scott Rasley, a longtime WDFW staffer and wildlife conflict specialist for the Blue Mountains, watched the animals make their way towards the Oregon state line, “like they do every morning,” he witnessed something extraordinary.

THIS ELK GOT UP WITH THE REST OF ITS HERD ON A SUBZERO MORNING NEAR WALLA WALLA THIS PAST WINTER BUT THEN SIMPLY DIED A SHORT WHILE LATER. (SCOTT RASLEY, WDFW)

The big bull turned to its left, then “laid down, put his head back, and died in 30 seconds.”

Didn’t take any final breaths, didn’t let out any death moans. Just. Died. On the spot.

“I have never seen anything like that in 38 years,” Rasley said.

He said the bull otherwise looked like it was in OK shape and was suffering no apparent external injuries.

“The bull had the normal amount of lack of fat that we would find this time of year. And after a late and very cold snowy winter, basically none,” Rasley said.

It was a hard thing for him to see, given how he much he’s enjoyed working with elk — “a magnificent animal” — for WDFW in some of the state’s best wapiti country over the past 35 years.

“I always hate to see a magnificent bull like this die for no reason,” Rasley said.

THE BULL WDFW’S SCOTT RASLEY SAW DIE WAS PART OF THIS HERD OF 26 BULLS AND MORE THAN 130 COWS AND CALVES. (WDFW)

But it’s also symbolic of the harsh conditions Eastern Washington deer, elk and antelope suffered through in February as below-zero temperatures and record or near-record snows hit the region and lingered well into March, burying forage and pushing the animals below their normal winter range habitats.

The bull’s death and those of other critters are briefly described in recent biweekly WDFW Wildlife Program reports from February and last month.

“Veterinarian Mansfield and Wildlife Health Technician Cole have been receiving an increase in reports of dead mule deer in eastern Washington,” reads one section of the March 1-15 report. “To date, necropsies and laboratory testing indicate that the deer are in a state of chronic negative energy balance, likely a result of prolonged winter weather and deep snow pack.”

It states that one deer had a “severe” ulcer, probably because it had been suddenly forced to forage on things its stomach couldn’t deal with.

“When eaten, they ferment in the stomach, producing large amounts of acid, which cause ulcers and enter the bloodstream, usually resulting in death,” the report states in reminding us that it’s not as easy as just putting out piles of corn or whatnot for starving critters.

That report and others from February show photos of carcasses of deer found on the Grande Ronde and recently translocated pronghorns near Tri-Cities, as well as a cow elk in the snow on the 4-O Wildlife Area that was still alive but too weak to stand with the end near.

“We lost a lot of deer along the Snake River, as well,” Rasley added. “Most were last year’s fawns. I can’t remember the last time we had 40 mile an hour north winds with below zero temps and heavy snow at the same time. Pretty sad.”

Most impacts occurred east of the Cascades, but hungry trumpeter swans in the Sequim area “decimated” an organic farm’s broccoli and cauliflower crops when everything else was under a heavy blanket of snow, according to one report.

With winter-weary deer and elk expected to struggle through more bad weather, in early March WDFW closed several wildlife area units on the eastern side of the Blue Mountains to public access to reduce disturbance on wintering game. On the south side of the range, ODFW urged shed antler hunters to postpone their searches.

But the Wildlife Program reports also share images or stories of wildlife powering through late winter — a herd of 23 bulls hunkered behind a tree line to get out of a cold wind on a 3-degree day; the snow burrows of sage grouse in the northern Columbia Basin; large numbers of elk gathered at Yakima and Kittitas Counties’ feedlots; turkeys in hay barns; a cougar taking shelter under a barn.

ELK BEHIND A TREE LINE WAIT OUT STRONG NORTH WINDS. (SCOTT RASLEY, WDFW)

It’s the nature of nature, the strong — and the lucky and the accidents of birth — survive the cold season to reproduce, strengthening the herds and flocks.

I  emailed a number of wildlife biologists across the Eastside’s southern tier to find out how this winter compared to the last harsh one that hit this country, 2016-17, which began a lot earlier.

Paul Wik, the district bio for the Blues, feels that 2018-19 was “likely less severe” of a winter than two years ago because the worst weather occurred during a seven- to eight-week window.

But he also thinks the animals may have gone into it with less fuel in the tank, per se.

“I think that the animals were likely in poorer condition than normal going into this winter due to the lack of fall green-up that normally occurs,” Wik said. “With the fall rains occurring too late in the year for grass to germinate in the fall, the deer and elk were not able to access higher nutritional forage in the fall, predisposing them to the severe late-winter conditions.”

As for the impact hunters might see, he says some parts of his district could see reduced deer harvest, the impact may be larger in 2021 when last year’s fawns would be legal bucks.

“Our deer surveys in December documented normal fawn recruitment, but that was prior to the winter weather which may have impacted them,” Wik said.

In the district to the north of him, Michael Atamian said it was “hard” on deer and elk.

“In general I would say it was not as hard as the 2016-17 winter in Spokane and Lincoln Counties. However, in southwest Whitman County this year was likely a bit harder than 2016-17 on mule deer,” he reported.

“We might see a bit of an impact in harvest success a couple years down the line in the Whitman County area,” Atamian noted, adding, “However, the ability of a hunter to secure private land access will have greater impact on their success overall.”

Wild, Scenic And Fishy

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Congressional act that now protects and enhances 3,000 miles of salmon-, steelhead- and trout-bearing rivers in the Northwest.

By Andy Walgamott

While fishing along the banks of Northwest rivers over the years, I’ve always kept an eye out for heart-shaped rocks, but I never found a good one till this past April.

(ANDY WALGAMOTT)

I was on the Sauk, hoping to hook wild winter steelhead after federal overseers finally approved a state season, the first time the Washington Cascades river had been open in spring since 2009. It was a glorious day, and I couldn’t have been happier to be back on the water at that time of year.

John Day River, Central Oregon; 248.6 miles of designated wild, scenic and recreational river. Chinook, steelhead, redband rainbow trout, bull trout, lamprey, smallmouth bass. (BOB WICK, BLM)

As I tried my luck below a riffle, two drift boaters worked a slot above it, and when they pulled their plugs in and headed downstream, I bushwhacked my way upstream to the stretch to hit it with my jigs and spoons.

Lower Klickitat River, Washington; 10.8 miles designated as recreational river. Spring, summer, fall Chinook, coho, summer and winter steelhead, rainbow trout, lamprey. (JASON BROOKS)

That’s when I stumbled onto the big, smooth granite heart. Pegging its base with cobbles, I propped it up on a boulder for a photograph next to one of my favorite rivers.

Grande Ronde River, Oregon; 43.8 miles designated as wild and recreational river. Spring Chinook, coho, summer steelhead, rainbow trout, smallmouth bass. (CASEY CRUM)

THE SAUK’S BRAWNY wild winters eluded me that day, but it was still great to be on several of the 12,754 miles of streams that comprise our National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, created by Congress way back in 1968 and signed into law by President Johnson.

North Umpqua River, Oregon; 33.8 miles designated as recreational river. Spring Chinook, summer steelhead, rainbow trout. (BOB WICK, BLM)

Though coming out of an era of increased environmental concerns – the Clean Air and Wilderness Acts preceded it and it was followed by the Clean Water, Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Acts – it takes a notably less heavy-handed approach in its implementation.

Bruneau River, Idaho; 39.3 miles designated as wild and recreational river. Redband rainbow trout. (BOB WICK, BLM)

The act aims to “(protect) and (enhance) the values that caused [rivers like the Sauk] to be designated” through the “voluntary stewardship by landowners and river users and through regulation and programs of federal, state, local, or tribal governments,” according to Rivers.gov. “It does not prohibit development or give the federal government control over private property.”

Bruneau River, Idaho; 39.3 miles designated as wild and recreational river. Redband rainbow trout. (RANDY KING)

There are wild, scenic and recreational rivers in 40 states, and some of the fishiest in the Northwest are included.

Lochsa River, Idaho; 90-plus miles designated as recreational river. Spring Chinook, summer steelhead, bull, cutthroat and rainbow trout, mountain whitefish. (PAUL ISHII)

In Oregon, there’s all or portions of the Chetco, Crooked and its North Fork, Deschutes, Elk, Grande Ronde, Illinois, Imnaha, John Day, Klamath, McKenzie, Metolius, North Umpqua, Owyhee, Rogue, Smith, Snake and Wenaha, among many, many more.

Crooked River, Oregon; 17.8 miles designated as recreational river. Redband rainbow trout, mountain whitefish. (BOB WICK, BLM)

In fact, Oregon just might have the highest percentage of rivers of any state: 2 percent, 1,916.7 miles, of the Beaver State’s 110,994 river miles are wild and scenic.

Rogue River, Oregon; 84.5 miles designated as wild, scenic and recreational river. Spring and fall Chinook, coho, summer and winter steelhead, coastal cutthroat and rainbow trout, lamprey. (THOMAS O’KEEFE, RIVERS.GOV)

In Idaho, 891 miles, including much of the Salmon and its Middle Fork, the Middle Fork Clearwater, upper St. Joe and Owyhee, and Bruneau are listed.

Owyhee River, Oregon; 120 miles designated as wild in Oregon (continues in Idaho). Redband rainbow trout. THOMAS O’KEEFE, RIVERS.GOV)

In sharp contrast, only 197 stream miles in Washington have been designated – unusual when you consider that it’s the wettest state in the West.

Skagit River, Washington; 158.5 miles of designated scenic and recreational rivers. Spring, summer and fall Chinook, coho, pink salmon, winter steelhead, bull, rainbow and sea-run cutthroat trout. (CHASE GUNNELL)

Where listed rivers occur throughout most of Oregon, the Evergreen State’s are limited to the Cascades and include the upper and lower ends of the White Salmon, the lower 11 miles of the Klickitat, and the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and its tributary, the Pratt.

BUT AT THE northern end of the mountain range is one of Washington’s best watersheds.

I don’t know how many times state district fisheries biologist Brett Barkdull has answered my question about why the Skagit system is so productive for steelhead, Chinook, bull trout and other stocks by pointing to its headwaters.

North Cascades National Park; the Ross Lake National Recreation Area; the Glacier Peak, Henry M. Jackson and Noisy-Diobsud Wildernesses; the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Out of all that protected federal land flows the wild and scenic Sauk, Suiattle, Skagit and Cascade Rivers and Illabot Creek.

It took many more questions of Barkdull to begin to understand that what looks like a mess – all the logjams, braids and big sunbaked cobble bars on the Sauk – is actually a good thing for fish.

They show a river largely unshackled by riprap and dikes, and allowed to meander as it has since for eons, a sign of a healthy river.

That not many people, farms and infrastructure line its banks make that more possible here, but I’d love it if in another 50 years, when the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act turns 100, more than just one-quarter of 1 percent of the nation’s streams are part of the system.

Mollala River, Oregon; 23 miles proposed as wild and scenic river. Spring Chinook, coho, winter steelhead, cutthroat and rainbow trout, lamprey. (BOB WICK, BLM)