Photo by Eric J. Hansen.
Elk hunters in the Pacific Northwest enjoy a wider range of opportunities than hunters anywhere else in the country. For starters, they have two subspecies of elk to choose from: Roosevelt elk in the forests and coastal valleys west of the Cascade Mountains, and the Rocky Mountain elk of the interior.
Also, the settings where hunters in Oregon and Washington pursue elk are more varied than in any other region. They range from classic mountain habitats to high desert to rain forest.
Finally, with a complex array of early and late seasons, different antler-point regulations, open-entry and permit hunts, just about every elk hunter in the Beaver and Evergreen states can find a hunt that suits him.
Anyone who has ever hunted elk knows that they are one of hunting’s greatest challenges.
During 2005, 100,561 Washington hunters bought elk licenses, and they killed 6,503 animals.
In Oregon, more than 105,000 elk hunters took to the field in 2006, and they brought back 13,000 elk.
Success rates for elk are typically less than 13 percent, and are much lower in many units. With odds like these, a hunter needs all of the help he can get. That’s why we put together this Washington-Oregon Game & Fish 2007 Elk Forecast. We’ll give you the inside track to fill your elk tag this season.
OREGON COAST, CASCADES
When it comes to elk harvest totals, Oregon is usually in the Top 3 among Western states, beating out several of the celebrated Rocky Mountain destinations.
Roosevelt elk are native to the heavily timbered areas west of the Cascades, but by the early 20th century, most herds had been extirpated by market hunters. Today, most western Oregon elk are either Rocky Mountain elk or mixtures of the two subspecies. However, the northwest coast’s Saddle Mountain Unit appears to contain a largely, if not entirely, native population of Roosevelt elk.
Roosevelt elk can grow larger than Rocky Mountain elk, but usually have less reach to their antlers. As a rule, they are also darker — an adaptation to their shadowed forest habitats — and tend to gather in smaller herds than eastside elk.
Elk-hunting options on the Oregon Coast in 2007 will be similar to recent years. The popular north coast Saddle Mountain Unit will be a controlled hunt with no general season for modern firearms hunters, although it does offer an archery general season with 3-point or minimum or antlerless regulations.
The MidCoast-Valley rifle season in the other coastal units will again be divided into two parts this year, with an early-November four-day hunt, followed by a week-long spike-only hunt in late November.
The Alsea Unit has been one of the most productive areas recently. In 2005, the most recent data available, it yielded 145 elk during the first general-season hunt and 62 in the second season. Hunters can expect the same conditions this year.
The Alsea is also popular and productive among bow hunters, who took 23 bulls and 114 cows in 2005 and had an exceptional 16 percent success rate.
For several years now, the ODFW has managed the Wilson and Trask units with a mid-October rifle hunt that is open to any bull. It is highly popular, because it gives hunters a shot at elk during the waning days of the rut, when the animals’ guard is down. During 2005, modern firearms hunters killed 335 bulls in the Wilson Unit and 327 in the Trask Unit during the early hunt, and had 16 and 12 percent success rates, respectively.
The second general season in these units is the same as in the other MidCoast-Valley Units, and harvest and success numbers drop significantly.
As in other coastal units, success in the early season depends largely on the weather. Hunters will be most successful if early rain softens the ground and strips the leaves from the trees.
All rifle hunting for elk on the south coast’s Tioga, Sixes, Powers and Chetco units is now controlled-hunt only. The Tioga Unit is the most productive, and during typical years, the ODFW issues more than 2,000 3-points-or-better permits for the unit.
It is too late to apply for a rifle permit for 2007. But bowhunters have a 30-day September season this year, during which 3-plus-point bulls and antlerless elk are legal.
Two years ago, archery hunters took 92 bulls and 149 cows from the Tioga Unit and scored an impressive 20 percent success rate. But they may do even better in the neighboring Sixes Unit: Two years ago, archers compiled a 32 percent success rate.
In recent years, one of the most popular elk hunts in Oregon has been the Cascade Bull Elk Hunt. It opens the units flanking the western and eastern slopes of the mountains during a one-week season in late October. It gives hunters a chance to enjoy some of the most beautiful and exhilarating scenery in the region, during the last good weather in the high-country year.
The Santiam, McKenzie and Indigo units are the most productive, giving up, respectively, 191 bulls (6 percent success rate), 201 (10 percent) and 275 (12 percent) in 2005. Access is excellent in these units in national forests and on state land. The highest reaches are usually in wilderness areas, where vehicle and all mechanized transportation are prohibited.
THE DRY SIDE
To hunt elk east of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, you have to plan more carefully. The high desert’s Paulina, Fort Rock, Silver Lake, Sprague, Klamath Falls, Interstate and Warner units are the only places where you can pursue adult, branch-antlered bulls with an over-the-counter, modern-firearms general-season tag.
Some local hunters do well in juniper and jackrabbit country, but in these units, harvest numbers are among the lowest in the state. You need to know the unit and its elk to have much of a chance.
If you can be content with a spike, you can also hunt in a handful of the Blue and Wallowa mountains units. The Heppner, Ukiah, Starkey, Desolation, Sumpter, Mount Emily, Walla Walla and Wenaha are largely within the Blue
Mountains, and they are all open for spikes during the second general season in November.
Hunters in the Umatilla/Whitman zone units (Ukiah, Desolation, Sumpter, Starky and Heppner) average a 7 percent success rate. The harvest in the Ukiah and Desolation units was more than 300 spikes in 2005. The Desolation Unit has the best access. More than 87 percent of the land is public.
The Starkey Unit is 67 percent public land, and includes the Dry Beaver-Ladd Canyon, the Wallowa/Whitman National Forest, and Starkey Experimental Forest Cooperative Travel Management Area road closures.
No region is more evocative of Oregon elk hunting than the Wallowa Mountains. Its Catherine Creek, Keating, Pine Creek and Imnaha units are open during the second general spike season this fall. All Wallowa elk herds have declined over the last decade, and calf survival has been at record lows in many units. Research suggests that predation by cougars and bears is a major factor in the poor calf survival.
Over the last few years, biologists have seen some turnaround and bull numbers are above management objectives in the Imnaha and Catherine Creek units. Two years ago, hunters took 74 spikes in the Imnaha Unit (for an 11 percent success rate), followed by 40 (15 percent) in Catherine Creek, 20 in Pine Creek (12 percent), and 20 in the Keating (11 percent).
Bowhunters have an open-entry 30-day general season with any elk legal, and will probably kill at least as many elk in these units this fall as rifle hunters.
WASHINGTON: WEST’S BEST?
Washington has 10 recognized elk herds, and they contribute the overwhelming majority of the elk harvest each year. Some, such as the North Cascades and South Rainier herds, don’t contribute substantially to the state’s harvest numbers, but provide local hunters with excellent opportunity. Others, such as the Blue Mountains, Colockum and Olympic herds, are currently well below their numbers of the 1970s and ’80s, but still produce good numbers of elk.
Still others, like the Yakima and Mount St. Helens herds, account for the bulk of the state’s elk harvest, and are currently larger than WDFW management objectives.
You could probably win a lot of bar bets by claiming that more elk are killed in western Washington than east of the Cascades. But tables were turned in 2005: Eastside general season and permit hunters combined for 4,450 elk, while westside hunters killed 3,049.
You could also win some bets by arguing that elk harvest has improved since the turn of the 21st century. You’d be correct on that as well.
But the west side of the Cascade Mountains wouldn’t even be in the running against the eastern part of the state, if it weren’t for the Mount St. Helens and Willapa Hills herds.
Region 4, which includes the North Cascades and parts of the North Rainier herd, gave up only 100 bulls in 2000 and a total of 93 elk in 2005. Despite slight improvements from dismal hunting in the 1990s, the Olympic Peninsula herds are still well below historic population sizes.
If you want a real chance at an elk west of the Cascades this year, the Mount St. Helens herd will be your best bet. According to the WDFW’s Region 5 status and trends report, it is above its management objectives.
Indeed, during several recent winters, the upper Toutle River Valley herd has experienced significant winter mortality. This occurred after the herd size increased in recent decades with the succulent forage that flourished in the wake of Mount St. Helen’s 1980 eruption. But that vegetation has matured and is no longer quality winter forage.
In late 2006, the WDFW responded by scheduling more cow permit hunts and other controlled and damage hunts this year.
Although they are lumped with the Toutle Valley’s herd under the name of Mount St. Helens, elk are widely distributed throughout the region. During 2005, more than 300 elk were killed in the Winston and Coweeman units, more than 200 in the Ryderwood, and more than 100 in the West Fork Klickitat, Packwood, Lewis River and Siouxan units.
You can hunt in all of these GMUs with a general season tag.
What sets these units apart from other western Washington units is active timber harvest rotations on industrial forests. Elk are most productive on stands of timber less than 30 years old.
Young and varied-age stands of timber were common throughout western Washington between the 1960s and early ’80s. But much of the federally controlled national forests have subsequently been converted to late-successional reserves to protect fish and spotted owl habitat.
However, private timber companies control much of the low- and middle-elevation forests in the southwest, and they continue to produce high-quality elk forage.
The Willapa Hills may be slightly below its management objectives, but it turned out 268 bucks and 53 cows, and it will once again be one of the best bets for westside elk hunters this fall.
On the Olympic Peninsula, the Clearwater, Matheny Ridge, Sol Duc, and Quinault Ridge units were once legendary for the number and size of elk they gave up. Declining quality of habitat, poaching and increased predation combined to knock Olympic herds to record lows in the 1990s.
The herd has rebounded in recent years. In 2005, the WDFW’s Region 6 status review claimed it’s generally close to objectives.
But the most productive units have shifted significantly in recent years, and this year, hunters will enjoy better odds in the units in the southern half of Region 6 — specifically, the Williams Creek, North River and Bear River units.
Regardless of how many elk are killed in western Washington, the ponderosa forests and rocky draws of eastern Washington will always be the state’s elk country for many hunters. And when hunters think of eastern Washington today, the Yakima elk herd probably comes to mind.
You could probably win a lot of bar bets by claiming that more elk are killed in western Washington than east of the Cascades.
The Yakima herd is the state’s largest. Its range extends from the foothills west of the Yakima River to the crest of the Cascades.
The Yakima herd’s numbers speak for themselves. During the 2005 general season, hunters killed 932 bulls and 523 cows in Region 3. The high antlerless harvest reflects the population-management strategy of increasing cow harvest to reduce population productivity. The WDFW has been actively reducing the elk population over the last few years because elk have been the subject of increasing damage complaints.
Interestingly, there is a long and depressing history of the elk vs. human controversy in the Yak
ima area. Washington’s first elk fence was built in the early 20th century, and wildlife managers have been forced to deal with angry landowners ever since.
The Naneum Unit is usually the most productive unit, and it produced 151 bulls in 2005.
Also popular with hunters are the Manastash, Bethel and Teanaway units, and they will give up their share of Yakima herd elk in 2007.
At one time, the Colockum herd, which ranges just north of the Yakima herd, was one of the state’s most productive. Its numbers have been depressed for a number of years. The herd is rebuilding gradually, but biologists said it is still below management objectives.
Landowner complaints compound the management difficulties for the Colockum herd because the elk often range into areas of private land. As a result, hunters shouldn’t expect anything special in the area this fall.
The Blue Mountains herd also experienced a long decline over the last 20 years. It was the first herd to be managed with spike-only regulations during the general season. As in the Oregon side of the Blue Mountains, calf survival has been below targets, and predation is the problem, biologists said.
Two years ago, the Schoolhouse fire destroyed considerable elk habitat in the upper Tucannon River valley. Last year’s Columbia Complex fire appears to have done little long-term damage. This fall, hunters should expect hunting similar to recent years in the Dayton, Blue Creek, and Mountain View units.
Hunting in northeast Region 1’s Selkirk Mountains presents entirely different challenges than in the Blues. The Selkirk herd is smaller than the Blues, but is expanding. The WDFW would like it to increase in Pend Oreille and eastern Stevens counties.
However, northeast elk habitat has understory vegetation that is much more dense than in other areas. It’s easy to spook elk before you ever see them. Hunting here is more difficult, but it also lets some bulls grow impressive racks.
The Mount Spokane, Selkirk, and 49 Degrees North units will most likely turn out the most bulls this year, and hunters can kill any bull.
Large numbers of elk are also killed in the Region 1’s north-central units. But almost all of this land is private, and access is nearly impossible to obtain.
All elk are trophies, and any Washington or Oregon hunter who tags an elk this fall has bragging rights that will last throughout the year.
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