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North Cascade Elk Herd Management Plan - State of Washington

Jan 10, 2008
The North Cascade, or Nooksack, Elk Herd, is the smallest of the ten herds living in the State of Washington. It is also the northernmost herd in the western part of Washington. However, despite its size, this herd is of considerable benefit to the citizens of Washington, in both aesthetic and economic arenas. It also provides recreational value, in the form of animals hunted and the opportunity to view wildlife in its natural habitat. The North Cascade herd also is important to Native American tribes in the area, providing subsistence, cultural resources, and ceremonial uses.

This herd was reintroduced into the state, resulting from successfully imported animals placed in the area in 1946 and 1948. The peak population of this herd occurred in 1984, at 1,700 elk. However, a sharp decline has occurred, and now the herd numbers no more than 300 individuals.

The core population of this elk herd in the Nooksack game management unit occupies an area of about 492 square miles (1,230 square km). In addition to this core population, another 125 elk live in agricultural land bordering the Skagit River. These elk mostly live in small, relatively isolated pockets of habitat. Remaining members of the herd live north of the Skagit River, in higher elevation, forested areas, and have been known to cause nuisances and damage to property. Expanding urban development is threatening the continued existence of these elk.

Data collected on the population and growth trends show that this herd has good potential. Although the survey data was limited in the sample size possible, it showed good production of calves. However, these favorable conditions have not been enough, since the herd has remained static at low population levels. Although the hunting season has been closed on this herd, unaccounted mortality may be preventing the population from rising.

Although the habitat changes caused by timber harvesting should have favored growth in the herd's population, increased human access may be resulting in additional deaths. There have been some problems with damage caused by elk on agricultural lands. However, the private lands along the River are important elk habitats, and should be protected and preserved to maintain the population of this herd.

This area is covered mostly by coniferous forest below the timberline. Three major zones of forest exist, depending on elevation and available moisture. They are the western hemlock zone, Pacific silver fir zone, and mountain hemlock zone. The western hemlock zone is the most important in timber production, and is likely to be effected by timber harvesting. Intensive logging, especially the practice of clear-cutting, has compromised the herd's ability to survive in the winter range and breed in the summer range. Heavy road traffic and human disturbance are the largest causes of this. Unfortunately, most of the winter ranges for elk are also within this zone. Some parts of this zone, in the foothills along the southern and western perimeter of the elk's range, are used for agricultural purposes.

The current management plan for the North Cascade Elk Herd calls for increasing the population in the Nooksack unit to around 1,450 animals, with an addition 200 in the Sauk unit. The goal for the entire herd area is around 1,950 individuals. The expansion of this herd into the available range south of the Skagit River, in the Sauk unit, is to be promoted. Both tribal and non-tribal hunting seasons would be able to be reestablished if there are enough animals to support them.

To help decrease mortality from human action, and to help people understand the value of their natural resource, public awareness of elk should be promoted. This includes photographic and viewing opportunities. Damage from elk on private property should be minimized to promote better public opinion of the elk management plan and of the herd.

The plan also calls for management of hunted units to acquires post-season bull ratios that are consistent with the state guidelines. These call for more than twelve bulls for each hundred cows. Mortality rates for bulls are to be less than fifty percent. To help preserve an adequate population, the forest service, state, and private lands should all be encouraged to maintain or increase their current capacities for providing elk habitat. Critical areas used by elk should be preserved and enhanced when possible.
About the Author
Scott Peters is an avid deer hunter, outdoorsman and rifle scope retailer. For more information on scopes please go to Nikon Scopes for Hunting.
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