Elk decline in Blue Mountains puzzles WDFW

A herd of elk grazes on the Chief Joseph Wildlife Area near Joseph Creek in Asotin County.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is starting a new study aimed at determining why elk herds in the Blue Mountains declined and what is keeping them from bouncing back.

Agency biologists will attempt to capture and radio-collar 125 elk calves starting next week to monitor their survival and determine causes of death through the following year, according to a news release.

“This is a unique project to help us determine the primary causes of death for elk calves in the Blue Mountains,” said Anis Aoude, game division manager for the department. “When a radio collar puts out a mortality signal, it’ll serve as a trigger for our biologists to quickly get out and determine the cause.”

The Blue Mountains elk herd declined below the agency’s population objective of 5,500 elk following a harsh winter in 2017 and was still estimated at 25 percent below the objective in 2019. The population trended upward the following year, but was found well below objective again this year.

In response, the agency reduced cow elk hunting opportunities starting in 2017, but the change hasn’t produced the desired boost in elk numbers. According to the news release, biologists believe low survival of calves is the primary factor keeping the herd from recovering.

The study is designed to determine if calf recruitment is limiting growth of the herd and, if that is the case, what factors are causing calves to die. The elk calves will be captured and radio-collared in the northern Blue Mountains between Dayton and Asotin Creek.