Elk numbers look good in southeastern Washington

CLARKSTON — The elk population in southeastern Washington looks to be at healthy levels.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently completed aerial surveys of the Blue Mountains and estimated the elk population at 5,774 animals.

The Lewiston Tribune reports that number is 500 to 600 higher than in recent years. That should translate into good opportunities for hunters next fall.

Biologists for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game were largely stymied in their efforts to count elk in the Elk City Zone last winter. Biologists say snow was late to arrive, and when it did start the storms were frequent and kept aircraft grounded. By the time the weather cleared it was too late to conduct the counts.

Paul Wik of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said their count likely includes 500 or so elk that spend the summer and fall in Oregon. Wik said because of the terrain that borders Oregon, the flights don’t stick strictly to state lines.

Surveyors didn’t count as many bulls this year but the survey model the department uses adjusted the number upward, Wik said. That’s because many animals were seen in timber. Since spotting elk in timber and dense cover is more difficult than seeing them on open hillsides, the model assumes there are more elk there than were spotted by human eyes.

Because the model predicted healthy numbers of young elk and mature bulls, Wik said that should translate into good opportunity for hunters next fall seeking spikes and those after branch antlered bulls.

In Washington, hunters must be drawn in a lottery to hunt mature bulls with branching antlers. Those who purchase over-the-counter tags are limited to spike bulls – younger animals without branching antlers.

Wik said much of the habitat is in good condition, especially in places that burned in 2005 and 2006. But he added there are places that have become dense and overgrown.

Washington conducts its elk surveys in the Blue Mountains when elk can easily be seen grazing on the fresh growth. Idaho does its surveys during the winter, when snow makes the animals easier to spot.

Because of heavy snow, biologists for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game elected to delay the survey by a year for fear that doing it late would have produced inconsistent data.

Biologists were able to get in one day of flying, and recorded a calf-to-cow ratio 22 calves for every 100 cows.

“It’s not a great calf-to-cow ratio but it’s not as bad as we have seen elsewhere and, given the small sample size, we probably don’t want to put a lot of stock into it,” said biologist Dave Koehler in Lewiston.

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