ELLENSBURG — Kittitas County’s elk population may outnumber Ellensburg’s human population, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s estimates, and the number of hunters who travel to the area in search of big game overshadows both.
“It’s a big attraction for hunters across the state, the elk hunting here,” state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist William Moore said. Every year, he fields an influx of calls from hunters inquiring about the upcoming season.
Early archery season for elk and deer has begun in many parts of the state, and modern firearm and muzzleloader seasons soon will begin.
Moore says WDFW has documented 18,000 elk living in the county.
Altogether, 22,000 hunters took to Kittitas County’s backcountry in 2011. Moore says the number of hunters in the area has declined in recent years but only slightly. “We have a lot of hunters that roll through this area for elk hunting,” Moore said.
Moore attributes the slight decline to an aging population of hunters who can’t get out as often as they did in their younger years, changing hunting techniques, increased restrictions on elk harvest in the Colockum area and a sharp decline in the county’s deer population several years ago.
In 2009, officials estimated that an outbreak of hair-loss disease had depleted about 50 percent of the deer population in Yakima and Kittitas counties in five years. The disease, caused by a tiny louse, spread from its origin in the Manastash Creek drainage to other areas throughout the county. Moore isn’t certain the hair-loss disease is entirely responsible for the declines in deer, but he thinks the affliction played a major role and has slowed the population’s rebound.
“I would say that (the deer) are coming back on the upswing, but they’re not to the level that they once were,” Moore said.
WDFW used to offer multiple special youth hunts and permits to hunt antler-less deer in Kittitas County every year.
“Now we’re down to the point where we’ve lost all that antler-less hunting and success rates are really low,” Moore said. WDFW still raffles a few special buck permits in Kittitas County each year, but most deer hunting in the county takes place during the general season.
Still, Moore says deer populations have remained strong in some parts of Kittitas County.
“It’s spotty,” Moore said.
Despite the deer situation, Moore calls Kittitas County’s elk populations “spectacular.”
“They’re doing really well,” Moore said of the elk.
In 2012, the Yakima elk herd, which occupies the portion of Kittitas County south of Interstate 90 and extends south into Yakima County, included an estimated 11,500 animals. It had an estimated 16 bulls for every 100 animals in the herd. WDFW aims to maintain 9,500 animals in that herd and 12 to 20 bulls for every 100 animals. Moore said WDFW will issue plenty of bull tags in the Yakima herd’s range, as it has in the past, and probably more cow tags.
The Colockum herd, which lives in areas of Kittitas County north of I-90, has increased in size recently. WDFW tries to maintain 4,500 animals in that herd and counted 5,700 last year. But the herd’s ratio of bull elk to antler-less elk remains below WDFW’s targets, and the agency mostly issues tags to hunt spikes — elk that have not matured enough to have forks in their antlers — in that herd’s range.
“For elk hunting it’s positive all around except for the Colockum being below objective for adult bulls,” Moore said.
Moore compares elk populations in Kittitas County to more renowned herds in the Yellowstone National Park area and says the county produces elk as big as any other region in the western United States.
“Really when I talk to hunters, sometimes, I don’t know if people understand what we have here in Kittitas and Yakima counties,” Moore said.
Kittitas County’s large amount of diverse public lands attracts many hunters.
“Because our county is 70 percent public land . we’ve really got an advantage as far as allowing hunter access,” said former Kittitas County Field and Stream Club President Bill Essman. He says many hunters have migrated to Kittitas County from Western Washington as private timber companies in that area have sold land, closed hunting access or begun charging hunters.
Kittitas County offers hunters a variety of terrain ranging from rugged high Cascade wilderness, to easily accessible road systems and shrub-steppe grasslands.
“I think that this area just offers a great spectrum of what’s available for hunting,” Moore said.
Kittitas County hunters who enjoy hunting a wide spectrum of animals can stay in the field from August until February, Essman said.