June 6, 2023

Elk Herd Management in Washington – A Management Problem or Media Hype and Politics?

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Last week I brought you two stories about elk management problems in the state of Washington. The first story was about a local television station’s breaking of a piece about starving and dying elk in the Mt. St. Helens region of northeast Washington. The second story was more about one politician demanding the resignation of Jeff Koenings, fish and wildlife director for poor management practices.

As with every story, there are two sides. It is difficult to give you facts as they are scarce. Either facts are being withheld or noone knows what’s going on. What we do know is some people are saying elk starved to death this winter in wildlife refuges in the Mt. St. Helens region. A television station did a story showing dead animals. Rep. Ed Orcutt (R) Kalama, wants Koenings fired because he says Koenings is doing a lousy job. This is not a lot of information to work with.
What we don’t know is how many elk have died and why. Without knowing how many died, it is impossible to say if this is more than normal.

Elk move into the refuges during the winter months to survive. In some refuges they are fed. Most of them survive on natural habitat and wildlife experts work at improving the habitat to support the influx of elk for the winter. I have read one report that stated more elk than the average moved into these wildlife refuges because of heavy snow depths in the higher elevations.

The same sources claim that any increase in mortality rate was due to more elk and the habitat would not support the numbers.

There are just too many unanswered questions as far as I can tell to form any substantial conclusions. If the facts aren’t available because fish and wildlife people don’t know, perhaps there is a management problem. If there were too many elk in these refuges this winter and the elk could have been supplemented with feed, there could be a management problem. If there are too many elk in general and the habitat can’t sustain this many, hunting permits should be increased. If this is the case and wildlife managers are sitting by watching elk die, there might be a management problem.

On the other hand, if a politician has a beef with a department or a department leader, there could be a political problem. If the media, not always known for their accurate reporting, wanting to go with emotional stories that sell advertising, began reporting about a story that wasn’t a story but just normal winter kill of elk, then perhaps we got a hype problem from the media.

Officials seem to be saying that on average they lose 10% of the herd each winter to winter kill. What kills them can range from starvation, predation, severe weather, to name a few. If these same officials have data to support any claims they may have to defend their management practices, we need to be given that information.

Tom Remington