More details emerged this morning about “exceptionally low” elk calf survival rates in Washington’s Blue Mountains, where it’s increasingly clear cougars are taking a lion-sized bite out of the herd.
“I think we need to do something or there will be very few elk left, given the trajectory we’re seeing,” Anis Aoude, WDFW Game Division manager, told six members of the Fish and Wildlife Commission this morning during a Zoom meeting of the Wildlife Committee.
While some of the commissioners recognize the dire straits faced by a herd that has has fallen to its lowest levels in 30-plus years and is not responding to sharply decreased antlerless tag levels, two others essentially argued, what crisis, let’s just lower the goalposts on the population objective and consider reducing hunting opportunities even further instead.
In the end it was another in a series of eye-popping discussions of the citizen panel circa late 2021 that left this reporter and another close observer from the hunting and conservation world wondering where this is all going.
So, let’s try to lay this out.
Earlier this year I reported on WDFW’s elk calf study, which is linked with a 54-page risk assessment for Blue Mountains elk that the agency published this July. Together they represent steps towards consideration of predator control in this rugged, iconic and also increasingly fang-and-claw-rich portion of Southeast Washington.
State wildlife managers are concerned because the herd has shrunk from as many as 5,700 animals as recently as 2016 to roughly 3,600 this year. It’s now 36 percent below the population objective.
Part of that crash was driven by the brutal wapiti-killing winter of 2016-17, but sharp reductions in tags for cows – the reproductive engine of the herd – since then have failed to spark a rebound. And particularly troubling is that calf recruitment rates have dropped below replacement levels.
They’ve been “poor to marginal” in recent years, 17-25:100 cows, so this past May WDFW captured 125 calves from four largely public-land game management units on the north face of the Blues for a survival study.
In late October came the first word that biologists were seeing an “alarming mortality rate” among the young wapiti and today the losses through November 29 were detailed further.
Now with winter dead ahead, just 11 percent of the calves have survived their first 150 days, an “exceptionally low” level, according to WDFW. The “typical” annual survival rate – meaning through their first full year of life – is from 57 percent down to 17 percent.
Of the 105 calves that have died so far, 77 mortalities were attributed to predators – with at least 70 percent of that pinned on cougars.
Specifically, WDFW reported 54 were killed by the big cats, nine by bears, four by either bears or cougars, four by an unknown predator, three by coyotes, two by wolves and one by a bobcat.
Other mortality sources included unknown causes (15), infection (five), starvation (two), exertional myopathy (two) and causes yet to be determined (four).
That’s what the calf study shows. As for the assessment, it’s a process called for in the state game management plan to consider removing predators impacting at-risk herds.
Essentially, it’s a review of the literature – the copious research that’s been done on elk in Washington’s as well as Oregon’s Blues by WDFW, ODFW, US Forest Service and biologists like the Cooks.
It also looked at bears, cougars and wolves – there are now at least five packs on the Evergreen State side of the Blues, and 25 known individuals as of the end of 2020 – habitat quality and climatic impacts, and human uses.
It found that that latter category – hunting, recreation, shed antler searches, etc. – was “unlikely” to be limiting the elk herd, but that “nutrition as a function of habitat/climate is potentially limiting” but would require a multi-year effort to suss out better, and that predation is “potentially a limiting factor for recruitment.”
Out of this exercise, WDFW’s goal is to come up with short- and long-term recommendations to boost calf recruitment to at least 25 per 100 cows and stabilize the population within the range of the population objective.
That goal is 5,500 animals spread through Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield and Asotin Counties, give or take 5 percent on either side of that benchmark.
But some commissioners on this morning’s Zoom session were skeptical there’s even a problem.
“I don’t know how much of a crisis it really is,” said Fred Koontz of Duvall.
He said the long-term herd population average is 4,500 and that if it was set to that level instead, it wouldn’t be considered a crisis.
“This may well be a case where the socially accepted number is higher than the biological number, and this is especially possible when we start emphasizing more ecosystem management rather than setting a specific species number,” Koontz said.
That’s a distinct echo from the alarming conservation policy he helped draft for commission consideration and came up for initial discussion in September.
After a long tangent on Yellowstone elk, pesticides (which will prick up the ears of those who blame elk hoof disease on timberlands’ herbicide use), potatoes and low calf weights as a means to emphasize the complexity of natural systems and their responses to external stimuli, Koontz reiterated that he thought, “The size goal is wrong.”
Lorna Smith of Port Townsend, who called fire and drought the primary issues affecting the herd, also wanted to lower WDFW’s herd management objective.
“Should we not be looking at that?” she asked.
The statements from the two commissioners, whose appointment early this year together had an unsettling feel that is firmly coming home to roost now, was pushed back on by Aoude, the Game Division manager.
“Regardless of the objective on the Blue Mountains, the levels of calf predation that we’re seeing, or calf mortality that we’re seeing, wouldn’t support even a lower population objective,” he stated.
Paul Wik, the longtime district wildlife biologist for the southeast corner of the state, said that the management objective of 5,500 was “still appropriate” and a “worthy goal” that provided recreational opportunities while maintaining a healthy population.
He said in the nine-year lead-up to the 2019’s approval of the Blue Mountain elk herd management plan, calf recruitment rates and calf-cow ratios had otherwise been good, there were no nutritional carrying capacity issues – he said that WSU vets who examined some of this year’s elk calf carcasses found them in “good body condition” – and the management objective was socially acceptable to the region.
In response to questions about wildfire impacts, Wik said that those that burned in 2005, 2006 and 2015 have all been helpful for the herd, and he expected this summer’s Lick Creek and Green Ridge blazes to also be “very beneficial” in the coming years.
He added that there was also funding from the National Wild Turkey Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Wild Sheep Foundation to address noxious weed issues on lower-elevation winter range, a critical issue.
That said, WDFW biologists’ trained judgments might not matter much with Koontz and Smith, who recently cited social concerns in trumping both the agency’s professional experts and its director in their vote against the spring black bear limited-entry permit hunt. Some 139 bruin tags would have been available in the Blues this coming season and there is no conservation concern it would hurt the population.
But other commissioners were listening to the agency’s data and assessment
“In my opinion, we need to put our resources into management at this point. We have a herd in crisis,” said Kim Thorburn, who chairs the panel’s Wildlife Committee.
Jim Anderson of Buckley said he was in “absorption mode” and warned against jumping to conclusions as he still had questions about updated cougar densities in the Blues.
A WDFW research project that wrapped up in 2013 found 3.02 mature cats per 100 square kilometers, or 38.6 square miles, in the Blues, as much as twice as high as elsewhere in Washington. Since then wolves have moved in. Mortality rates in WDFW’s 2021 elk calf study are on par with those from 2002 ODFW research in two nearby units, 75 percent.
“But I don’t want to be paralyzed by just study and possibly not take action when we should,” Anderson added.
The next steps in the process are for WDFW to finalize the at-risk assessment and come up with management recommendations by this coming March, and put that out for public comment and Fish and Wildlife Commission review next spring and summer.
If “actionable management measures” are approved, they could be implemented as early as next fall.
Commissioner Don McIsaac asked Kyle Garrison, WDFW’s acting Ungulate Section manager, to detail what near-term recommendations the citizen panel might hear this summer.
“Recommendations might vary from, in the near term, status quo – that’s something that can be deliberated,” said Garrison.
“The more obvious one, of course, is, given the level of predation that we have documented on these calves, and the inability of the calf survival level to produce a recruitment level that would generate population rebuilding – a reversal of the trajectory,” Garrison added. “In order to increase that juvenile survival you would target the specific cause, the highest specific cause of mortality, and in this instance it is cougar predation. And so that leads to the logical course of producing, potentially, a recommendation to reduce the density of cougars, or a number of cougars, in at least some GMUs.”
Yet even though it’s far from a done deal, Smith questioned that approach.
“Why have we jumped to predator management?” she asked. “That’s really my question when it seems like the obvious answer to short-term solution is to limit harvest. I mean, human harvest is the major factor in mortality in this herd. Why are we not looking at limiting harvest while we’re assessing what’s going on with this population?”
Outside the meeting, those comments were a blaring air raid siren in the ear of Marie Neumiller, the executive director of the Spokane-based Inland Northwest Wildlife Council.
“Commissioner Smith’s personal fight against using hunting as a form of predator management will put our state’s ungulate population at risk,” Neumiller warned. “It is irresponsible stewardship and an outright attack on our hunting traditions. As she signaled today when calling for further reducing elk hunting opportunities in the Blue Mountains, this will not stop with spring bear. This will lead to reduced hunting opportunities across the board.”
This morning’s two-hour Wildlife Committee meeting was limited by the equally as thorny topic of the Klickitat County sheriff’s cougar removals and a 10 a.m. shindig on wolf control, so Thorburn had to end the discussion before Garrison could respond, but she thanked him, Anis Aoude, Paul Wik and other WDFW staffers for their presentation.
“As some of us feel, we have a real crisis in the Blue Mountains with our elk and we do want to be working with you on it,” Thorburn said.