Cascade Mountains Elk

Cascade Mountains Elk

The geographic break that forms the spine separating east from west in Washington and Oregon is home to a boatload of elk.

by Doug Rose

There are more settings in which to hunt elk in the Northwest than in any other area of the country. They can be found in the arid shrub/steppe of the Columbia Basin; they can be found in the drizzly, tangled forest of the Olympic Peninsula. They range the sagebrush and bitterbrush flats of Oregon's high desert, and are native to the coast ranges, the Siskiyous.

But most elk hunters think of elk as mountain animals, and the slopes of Washington and Oregon's Cascade Mountains remain the region's classic elk hunting destination. During autumn, archery, muzzleloader and centerfire rifle hunters attempt to intercept them on the lower slopes of the Cascades, as they migrate back down to the upper edges of the lowlands to their winter range.

"Most of our elk move to the east side of the Cascades crest in late spring to calve," said Larry Cooper, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife big-game section chief. "They summer on the east side, then move to the west slope in the winter. But some elk in the southern part of Cascades migrate south."

Elk hunting in the Cascades has a lot to offer a hunter: The weather, while crisp and dropping below freezing occasionally at night, is perfect for strenuous activity; elk tend to be on the move and are still in good condition; and it provides a chance to experience some of the most glorious country in the nation.

But the Cascades, like all mountain ranges, exact a price. Flat real estate is at even more of a premium in the Cascades than in the coastal mountain ranges to the west. Hunters need to be in excellent physical condition, because the thick forests and high meadows are often hard to reach, even on horseback. And the challenge doesn't end when you pull the trigger, either. As an old-timer told me many years ago, when I was beginning to hunt elk, "The real work begins after the animal is dead." Indeed, if you think hunting at a 30-degree angle is exhausting, try skinning and quartering a 600-pound animal lying at that angle.

Photo by R.E. Ilg

The long towering spine of the Cascades acts as a weather screen for fronts drifting in from the Pacific Ocean. When warm, moisture-laden clouds intercept the colder massif of the mountains, they release most of their moisture. This results in a heavy annual rain and snowfall in the west flanks of the mountains, which creates the dense vegetation of the understory and the thick forests associated with western Washington. Trees are closer together and the understory is thicker on the "wet side" of the mountains, even at the higher elevations. As a result, the use of stock for hunting is not as popular as it is in the more open areas east of the Cascades, although experienced hunters familiar with an area do employ stock to good advantage in more open areas.

There is some question as to whether elk actually inhabited the high slopes of the Cascade Mountains. Roosevelt elk, the slightly larger, darker and more herd-oriented subspecies native to coastal Washington and Oregon, are well documented in the low-elevation river valleys of the Olympic Peninsula rivers, southwest Washington and the Oregon Coast. But most of the higher elevations were barren of elk when white settlers entered the region in the mid-19th century. Rocky Mountain from Montana and Idaho were transplanted to sites on both sides of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon by the turn of the century, however, and today elk range the length of the Cascades.

Although small, isolated elk herds can be found in many areas of the western Cascade foothills, huntable populations are limited to a handful of large areas, where many sub-herds create a large number of animals. On the north, the Nooksack herd of Whatcomb County has languished at low numbers in recent years, and it has remained off-limits to hunting. The first good concentration of elk occurs in the area surrounding Mount Rainier. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife manages the Rainier elk herds separately as "north" and "south" herds. The Mount St. Helens herd is the next major elk complex to the south, and in recent years it has supported the largest and most targeted elk population in western Washington.

The North Rainier herd sprawls over more than 2,800 square miles, primarily in King and Pierce counties, and it is available to hunters in the Snoqualmie, Stampede, Cedar River, White River and Mashel game management units.

For the most part, North Rainier elk are migratory, spending the summer and early autumn in excess of 7,000 feet in the north portion of Mount Rainier National Park, then descending via river corridors and low passes into the western valleys of the Cedar River, White River and Mashel units as the snow arrives.

Since 1989, the population of the North Rainier herd has fallen off dramatically, from an estimated 3,400 to 1,845. The largest declines have occurred in the Green River and Cedar River units. "We are trying to recover the sub-herd in the Green River drainage," said Jerry Nelson, WDFW elk and deer program manager. The White River and Mashel units have remained the most stable.

The South Rainier herd inhabits a smaller area - about 1,100 square miles - than the northern herd, south and west of the national park. Its range includes portions of the Stormking, South Rainier, Packwood and Skookumchuck units. South Rainier elk are largely migratory, wintering in the upper Cowlitz and Cispus river valleys. However, growing numbers now spend the entire year below 3,000 feet, and are essentially "resident" elk.

The combined elk population of the South Rainier, Stormking and Packwood units declined from about 3,800 animals in 1994 to an estimated 1,700 in 1998, although that number appears to have stabilized since then. Around 400 elk winter in the Skookumchuck Unit. The population objective for the three Region 5 units is 2,500 elk, raising the herd number to around 3,000.

The elk herds associated with Mount St. Helens comprise the largest complex of elk in the Washington Cascades, and they sprawl over 16 GMUs. Like the elk of Mount Rainier herds, they are largely migratory, summering in the high country on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the Mount St. Helens National Monument. The lower elevation areas of the Lewis River, Marble, Margaret, Winston and Toutle units are popular wintering areas for the elk. Although the St. Helens herd numbers about 12,500 elk, the WDFW wants to increase it to 15,000. The conversion of former national forest timberlands into old growth reserves threatens to diminish the productivity of the upper reaches of the area, while recent access restrictions on Weyerhaeuser's Mount St. Helens Tree Farm have changed the nature of the hunting in lower elevation areas.

Unlike Washington, which manages elk hunting in the Cascade foothills the same as other areas west of the mountains, the ODFW has created a specific Cascade hunt. The "Cascade" hunt is one of the state's most popular and typically runs for seven days during the third week of October. It is a general season hunt with unlimited entry, and any bull elk with a visible antler is legal.

"Our Cascade units all have pretty substantial populations of elk," the ODFW's Cooper said. "You've got to watch the weather to find the elk. I was hunting in October two or three years ago up near the Skyline Trail (the Pacific Crest Trail). But one year there was eight inches of snow there and there are other years when you can't get anywhere near the place. During the winter they are typically right around the snow line."

The ODFW categorizes the elk within the Cascade region by watershed district, rather than by mountain peak. "That's the way we divide management responsibility," Cooper said. From north to south, the North Willamette Watershed District encompasses the Santiam Wildlife Unit, while the South Willamette Watershed contains the McKenzie Unit. The central Cascades' Umpqua Watershed District includes the Indigo and Dixon units, and the Evans Creek and Rogue units are part of the Rogue Watershed District. The units that are located east of the Cascade crest and that are open during the Cascade hunt - the Deschutes, Metolius and portions of the Fort Rock, Grizzly and Sprague units - are primarily within the Deschutes Watershed District.

The Santiam and McKenzie units are the traditional hunting ground for elk hunters from the Portland/Salem/ Eugene population centers. Public land within the Santiam Unit is primarily Mount Hood and Willamette national forests, including sections of the Salmon-Huckleberry, Bull of the Woods and Middle Santiam and Mt. Jefferson wildernesses, while access in the McKenzie Unit is largely Willamette National Forest and its Three Sisters and Waldo Lake wildernesses. Both units have been near or over their management objective of a 10:100 bulls-to-cow ratio in recent years. The Santiam Unit has averaged a 14:100 mark over the last three-year period and the McKenzie at 15. Calves per 100 cows averaged 37 in the Santiam and 34 in the McKenzie, indicating a stable to expanding herd.

Located at the headwaters of the Umpqua River watershed, the Indigo and Dixon units describe an area roughly south from Oakridge, east of Roseburg and northwest of Crater Lake. The Indigo Unit contains extensive Umpqua National Forest holdings and the Diamond Peak and Boulder Creek wildernesses, along with areas of Willamette National Forest and BLM land. Hunter access in the Dixon Unit is primarily through the Umpqua and Rogue River national forests, including the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness and BLM land.

Elk have been expanding in these units in recent years, and the 1,117 total elk surveyed (these are index areas not total population numbers) in the Dixon Unit in 2001 was the highest in the Cascade region. Bull numbers also are right around objectives in both units, and the calf numbers appear stable.

Elk in the southern Cascades, the Rogue and Evans Creek units, roam the slightly lower foothills of the upper Rogue River basins. Public land is less widespread in the southern Cascades, but there are portions of the Medford BLM and Umpqua NF in the Evans Creek Unit, and Rogue River NF and BLM land in the Rogue Unit. The elk appear to be expanding their range and numbers. Calf numbers in both units were the highest in the region. The three-year bull:cow ratio in Evans Creek (23:100) is the highest in the Cascades, while the total numbers of bulls classified (54) was highest in the Rogue.

As you descend from the crest of the Cascade Mountains, the Ice Age landscape of glaciers and tortured peaks and canyons, the terrain displays a stark difference from the thicker, wetter vegetation of the west side. Instead of the heavy blanket of fir trees, the forests are open stands of Ponderosa pine and lodgepole. Working downhill, following the path of the elk as they drift down from high summer range into the foothills, the country is a mixture of mountain parks, broken stands of relatively open timber. Visibility is much better than on the west side of the mountains, and it is ideally suited to horse travel.

Washington's Yakima elk herd is the Evergreen State's largest, numbering nearly 12,000 animals. Ranging from the eastern slopes of the Cascades in Kittitas and Yakima counties down to an elk fence west of the Yakima River, the Yakima elk are a classic migratory herd. The Manastash, Umtanum, Nile, Bethel and Cowiche GMUs are the major wintering areas. Since 1994, the Yakima herd has been managed under "spike-only" regulations during the general modern firearms season, and all hunts for branched-antler bulls have been permit hunts. The WDFW's goal is to reduce the overall population in the Yakima herd to 9,500 elk, to prevent increased landowner complaints.

Oregon hunters have an opportunity at east slope elk in the Metolius, Upper Deschutes and Keno units and the western portions of the Fort Rock, Sprague and Grizzly units. These areas are included in the ODFW's late October Cascade general centerfire rifle season, in which hunters can target any bull elk with a visible antler. Although these slopes are quite similar to the habitat of Washington's Yakima herd, they are much less productive. During the 2000 season, hunter success rates were 4 percent in the Upper Deschutes Unit, 5 percent in the Metolius Unit and 2 percent in the Fort Rock Unit.

Because most of the elk that inhabit the Cascade Mountains are migratory, it is important for hunters to know where to look for them during the hunting season. Probably the best and ultimately most satisfying way to do that is to select an area where you know there are elk and monitor their movements through the seasons over a period of years.

Each state publishes harvest reports that reveal which units are most productive. This will give you a clear indication of where the largest numbers of elk are located during the hunting season. The Santiam, McKenzie, Indigo and Dixon units are the most productive in the Oregon Cascades. The Lewis River, Siouxon, Winston and Coweeman routinely attain the best percentages in the Mount St. Helens area, as do the White River and Mashel units (north) and South Rainier and Packwood (south) of the Mount Rainier herd. Year after year, the Manastash, Umtanum, Little Naches and Bethel GMUs have been the best places to look for elk during the Yakima modern firearms season.

Once you determine the unit you want to concentrate on, the next step is to narrow your effort to a few areas. If you are completely unfamiliar with the area, it is a good idea to consult regional experts like sporting goods store proprietors, wildlife biologists or game wardens.

Topographical maps are also a good aid, because they allow you to determine the wide, low-elevation river bottoms elk tend to inhabit during the hunting season.

Finally, you need to drive up to the area before the season opens and

begin looking for sign. Elk are big and they are herd animals, so it is usually relatively easy to find the places they are using.

The ODFW's Cooper cautions hunters that the elk aren't always where you saw them last year. "You can't necessarily pick a spot and go back to it year after year and find elk," he said.

"You've just got to get out there and stomp around the woods," the old-timer who cautioned me on the work involved in successful mountain elk hunting told me.

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