An elk monitoring project in the Blue Mountains of Washington continues to produce alarming results and has become a potential point of philosophical conflict among the state’s Fish and Wildlife commissioners.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife effort began in May with the capture of 125 elk calves that were fitted with tracking collars. Through the middle of November, only 11 of those animals were still alive. Two died during the initial capture, seven have slipped their collars and their fate is unknown, and biologists have documented 105 deaths. Of those, 77 were attributed to predation, with 54, or 70 percent, caused by mountain lions.

“When you look at the level of survival we have to date, 11 percent in the fall even before we have entered winter, that is quite low,” said Kyle Garrison, acting ungulate manager for the agency.

The Blue Mountain elk herd has been in decline since 2017. The estimated population of 3,600 animals is 35 percent below the management objective of 5,500. Calf survival since 2017 has been poor.

“We are seeing calf recruitment below a level where you would anticipate stability, let alone growth, and reversal of this decline,” Garrison said.

Commissioner KimThorburn of Spokane called it “a herd in crisis” at a recent meeting of the commissions wildlife committee. Commissioner Jim Anderson, of Buckley, in Pierce County said getting the best and latest data is critical but so too is doing something to help the herd.

“I don’t want to be paralyzed by just study and not taking action,” he said.

The calf survival monitoring project is slated to last into the spring. Wildlife managers will use the data and other information to develop possible actions to be presented to the commission and the public next summer. Garrison said no decisions are final but a possible response would be to reduce the cougar population.

“In this instance, with 70 percent of all predation mortality being attributed to cougars, it does seem that the more obvious recommendation would be to focus on that largest source of mortality,” Garrison said.

But Commissioners Fred Koonts of Duvall and Lorna Smith of Jefferson County pushed back, saying that the state’s management objective of 5,500 elk was too high and should be slashed.

“I don’t know how much of a crisis it really is,” said Koontz, who resigned from the commission Monday.

Smith said last summer’s fires and those of recent years may have reduced the elk carrying capacity of the area. Instead of focusing on predators, she said the agency should reduce elk hunting opportunities.

“Why have we jumped to predator management, that is really my question when it seems like the obvious answer to short-term solutions is to limit harvest.”

Both commissioners who were appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee last year have at times questioned science and data collected by agency officials. They previously balked at bear population estimates agency biologists gathered in support of a limited spring bear hunting season. That season was canceled last month after a tie vote from the commission.

Wildlife managers defended the elk management objective and said the fires, including those last summer, have and will largely benefit elk by improving habitat.

“The levels of calf predation we are seeing, or calf mortality that we are seeing, wouldn’t support even a lower population objective,” game director Anis Aoude said. “It’s showing a declining trend regardless of what the objective might be. So I think we need to do something, otherwise there may be very few elk left given the trajectory we are seeing.”

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273.