November 28, 2023

Managing Elk Herds

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For whatever the reasons, elk are a valuable commodity to Americans. I think because of its size and majesty, especially seeing a large bull sporting a massive set of antlers, large body mass and graceful movements. Hunters have become very protective of the creature which in some cases is creating some very interesting bedfellows, i.e. hunting groups and animals rights groups.

Hunting groups are working closely with wildlife managers to help feed hungry elk to ensure the continued growth of the herd. Animal rights groups are essentially doing the same thing. But are we doing the right thing?

Mother Nature can be harsh. Most of us never witness the sometimes shocking truth about what happens to animals under the complete control of Mother Nature. We as compassionate humans don’t want to see this cruelty so we find ways of ending it, such as feeding our wildlife. This is the case with our elk herds.

As much as we try to control natural events, we sometimes create a worse case situation. In the case of elk, a herd will grow in size and numbers when there is enough food to support the herd. If for example, an area has several years in a row of conditions that favor natural growth that benefits elk feeding, the health of the herd improves which in turn allows for more calves to be born. If predation remains constant, we would realize an upswing in population. Obviously, the reverse of that would cause a downturn in numbers.

Mother Nature has a lot to say sometimes about this. Take for example around the Mt. St. Helens area in Washington. When the mountain erupted, it leveled the forest creating vast areas of open land. In time, the area began its regrowth. This new growth was exactly what the elk could thrive on and so the herd flourished. As the growth matured, it began shutting out the younger, smaller growth that elk mostly like to eat. Elk began starving. This is a natural process controlled by Mother Nature.

People didn’t want to see the elk starve so they began to feed the animals in the winter months, trying to maintain artificially high numbers, numbers that could not be sustained without supplemental feeding. There are other complications involving the spread of disease, etc. that come from feeding the elk this way.

Last year the elk herd around the Mt. St. Helens area got a fair amount of attention because of what appeared to be a larger than normal number of elk that starved to death. This brought in the animals rights groups, hunters, media and wildlife managers all wanting to find ways to stop the hunger, usually resulting in the furthering of feed lots.

According to an article in the Mercury News by Chester Allen, supplemental feeding is not the answer to helping the elk herd.

I’ve gotten calls from anti-hunting activists – they never leave their names – saying that humans should just feed the starving elk.

I get the same kind of calls from hunters, which is interesting.

You’ll see fish and wildlife departments set up feeding stations when large numbers of animals begin starving and our state Fish and Wildlife department is no different.

But feeding stations are not the solution to elk and deer overpopulation.

I’m not a big-game hunter, but I realize that it’s up to humans to make sure animals don’t overpopulate the land and begin dying of starvation and disease.

Ware [David Ware, Fish and Game manager] told me that winter feeding can save a few animals, but it also concentrates animals in small areas, where diseases quickly spread.

Elk die in feedlots every winter, Ware said.

What’s more, feeding animals in winter is not a solution to elk overpopulation. Winter feeding keeps the population artificially high and then puts the animals out on the already shrinking range during the summer.

Winter always comes again, and you’ve got even more elk to feed. And so on.

“Very few managers support winter feeding,” Ware said.

Winter feeding often happens when the public sees a lot of starving animals or when winter conditions are unusually harsh, Ware said.

The solution is simple – we humans have to reduce the size of the elk herd.

The Washington Fish and Game is proposing a new plan to reduce the herd at Mt. St. Helens. An estimated 12,500 elk make up that herd and officials want to see it reduced to around 10,000 in five years. Their plan utilizes the one method that is always turned to over and over again, hunting.

Animal rights groups don’t want to use hunting to reduce the herd. They believe that we should just keep feeding the elk whatever it takes. Some hunting groups, believe it or not, are also opposing the use of hunting because they want to see an overblown population of elk so that in the long run more and more hunters will have a chance at elk hunting and up their chances of bagging an elk in the future.

Man created wildlife management for two basic reasons. One is out of compassion for animals and the other out of necessity. Our options are simple really and we need to decide what is scientifically the best way to handle it. We can either leave well enough alone and let the herd grow and shrink on its own according to what Mother Nature decides. We can continue with the establishment of feed stations and deal with the spread of disease. We can institute hunting as a means of herd reduction to levels within the local carrying capacity or we can combine any or all of these methods along with different forestry practices that would grow vegetation for more food for the elk.

You pick one. It doesn’t matter which method gets chosen, someone will not agree. If we could eliminate the politics, I’d put my money on good sound science.

Tom Remington