The Pacific Northwest boasts a number of widely known elk hunting areas throughout Washington’s Yakima foothills and Olympic Peninsula, and Oregon’s Wilson, Tioga and High Cascade hunts.
Historically, however, the Blue Mountains have been the region’s most celebrated Rocky Mountain elk hunting destination. For decades, local towns like La Grande, Pomeroy, Troy and Asotin have pulsed with elk hunting activity each autumn.
The Blue Mountains are also the only place in the region where hunters can pursue elk on a common geographic area that sprawls over state boundaries — the extreme southeast corner of Washington and northeast tip of Oregon.
Northwest elk hunters know that over the last 20 years, things have changed dramatically in the Blues and their productive Beaver State offshoot, the Wallowa Mountains. In the 1990s, the size of the herds on both sides of the border dwindled to record lows, and the elk harvest reflected those declines.
A number of factors were blamed for the declines: predation from cougars and bears, changes in the quality of forage, timber harvest, drought, and winter mortality. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife responded with more restrictive management and regulations, including permit-only hunts for adult bulls, fewer cow permits and shorter seasons.
Both agencies, along with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station also began long-term studies aimed at determining the real — and likely, multiple and interconnected — reasons for the declines in the elk herds.
Despite the difficulties, the Blue Mountains remain one of the most popular elk hunting destinations in the Northwest. In autumn, more rifle, bow- and blackpowder hunters roam its grassy slopes and ponderosa pine forests than any other area east of the Cascade Mountains. And these hunters pursue its Rocky Mountain elk over settings ranging from the mile-high aeries in the Eagle Cap and Wenaha-Tucannon wildernesses down to the shores of the Snake and Grande Ronde rivers.
In recent years, most of the harvest in both states has been restricted to spikes and cows. The taking of adult bulls has been limited to permit holders, which has increased survival of older, branch-antlered elk. And while it usually takes a few years to draw a bull tag, hunters who do hold tags have an arguably better chance for taking a record-book animal here than in any other area of the Northwest.
Fewer elk roam the Blue Mountains today than did a generation ago. But names like Sled Springs, Tucannon, Imnaha and Mountain View still exert a nearly magnetic pull over the imaginations of Northwest Rocky Mountain elk hunters.
THE OREGON SIDE OF THE BLUES
When it comes to elk, the western Blue Mountains’ Umatilla/Whitman Zone has been the most productive for decades. With a mix of open range and conifer forests mingling with the Umatilla and John Day river headwaters, this zone contains some of Oregon’s best elk habitat.
During the 2004 season, the zone gave up 3,332 elk, 1,592 bulls and 1,740 cows — easily the largest harvest in the region. The Starkey Unit alone accounted for more than 640 elk, more than twice as many as any units in the Wallowa and Wenaha/Snake zones.
However, all is not well in the western portion of the Blues. The elk harvest is actually down from more than 8,000 elk in 1997, and harvest-success rates fell from 25 percent to 15 percent.
The problem is low survival — often record-low survival — of calves. It began in the Wallowa and Wenaha/Snake zones, but in recent years the trend has moved relentlessly westward.
Research now under way there can explain what is happening in the Umatilla/Whitman Zone.
“Most of our calf mortality is related to cougar predation, and to a lesser extent, black bears,” said Pat Matthews, of the ODFW’s Enterprise district office. “It’s kind of been a progressive thing, working its way (to the west) for a number of years.”
The Starkey Unit is the heart of elk hunting in the western Blue Mountains. Besides giving up the most animals, it also has the best access in the region. More than 67 percent of it is public land, most of it in the Wallowa/Whitman National Forest and Bureau of Land Management’s Vale District. The Starkey Unit also contains five Cooperative Travel Management Areas, including the 125-square-mile Dry Beaver-Ladd Canyon and 40 square miles within the Starkey Experimental Forest.
Many hunters dislike road closures, of course, but research conducted at the forest has found that elk dislike road and traffic (see sidebar). Since the Starkey Unit receives the heaviest hunter use — occasionally, as many as 9,000 — in the Oregon portion of the Blue Mountains, hunters who venture beyond gates greatly increase their odds of getting away from the crowds and of taking an elk.
In the Umatilla/Whitman Zone, the Ukiah and Heppner units are typically the second and third most productive units. In 2004, modern-firearms controlled hunts yielded 389 bulls and 202 cows in the Ukiah Unit (13 percent success rate), and 239 bulls and 327 cows in the Heppner Unit (also 13 percent success rate). However, these units also attract more hunters than any other units except the Starkey Unit, and their percent of public land is only in the 30 percent range, among the region’s lowest.
On the southern side of the zone, the Desolation and Sumpter units each gave up more than 500 elk during the controlled-hunt modern-firearms season in 2004. These units also produced some of the best archery elk numbers in the Blues: Their 12 and 16 percent success rates, respectively, are comparable to rifle hunts. More than 87 percent of the Desolation Unit lies within the Umatilla National Forest, Malheur National Forest and BLM land, while the Sumpter Unit is 45 percent public land.
THE WALLOWA AND WENAHA/SNAKE ZONES
The elk herds in extreme northeast Oregon were the first to decline and were the first to hit record lows, but the elk populations have slowly begun to recover, and hunter-success rates have climbed.
During 1997, the total modern-firearms elk harvest for the Wallowa Zone — which includes the southwestern portions of the Blue Mountains and southern Wallowas — was 1,046. Those numbers fell to 760 in 2004. However, the overall rifle success rate was 18 percent in 1997 and 21 percent in 2004.
the Wenaha/Snake Zone, which contains units on the west and north sides of the Blues and Wallowas, posted an 18-percent success rate in both 1997 and 2004. But recently, the harvest ratios in some specific units have climbed to around 30 percent.
“We’re looking at a pretty good elk season,” said Pat Matthews, wildlife biologist with the ODFW’s Enterprise district.
The Sled Springs unit has recently been the most productive unit for both modern-firearms and archery hunters in the Wenaha/Snake Zone. It yielded 301 elk to modern-firearms controlled-tag hunters in 2004 and had an impressive 27-percent success rate. Only 17 percent of the unit is public land, most in pockets of Wallowa/Whitman National Forest on upper Joseph Creek. But Matthews says that the bulk of the land is owned by a timber company that still allows hunting access.
More than 95 percent of the Snake Unit, which extends between the Snake and Imnaha rivers, lies within the Hells Canyon Wilderness and Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
“It’s a real backcountry unit,” Matthews said, adding that horses offer the most effective way to access and hunt it. The Snake Unit gave up 192 elk to rifle hunters and had an impressive 42-percent success rate in 2004, while the Chesnimnus put out 162 elk (24 percent).
In most of the Wallowa Zone units, elk numbers have been below management objectives due to poor calf survival. But hunters who draw tags still enjoy relatively good chances for success. The Imnaha and Minam units are above objectives, and yielded 185 and 157 elk, respectively, with 25 and 19 percent success rates.
The Catherine Creek, Pine Creek and Lost Mountain units also accounted for more than 100 elk, with harvest rates above 18 percent. However, low calf survival in the Pine Creek, Lookout Mountain and Keating units will result in low spike numbers once again this year.
The Mount Emily Unit turned out 235 elk (11 percent success) in 2004, but last year it posted its lowest ever calf-survival numbers. The Wenaha Unit, which is almost entirely wilderness, yielded 67 elk.
BLUE MOUNTAINS OF THE EVERGREEN STATE
North of the Oregon border, elk haven’t fared any better than Beaver State herds, declining from a peak of 6,500 animals in the late 1970s to around 4,500 in 1999.
But more restrictive management strategies, codified in the WDFW’s 2001 Blue Mountain Elk Management Plan, set a goal of 5,600 elk for the Washington portion of the region and seem to have improved conception rates of cows and increased bull-to-cow ratios.
“Most herds are close to management objectives,” said Pat Fowler, the WDFW’s regional wildlife biologist. “They seem fairly stable.”
As in Oregon, the only way you’ll get a chance to drop an adult bull elk in the Blue Mountains is if you draw a permit hunt. Now that the original shock of the 1989 implementation of spike-only regulations during the general season has subsided, many hunters concede that the Blue Mountains are less crowded, and they’re seeing more bulls.
In fact, most serious Blue Mountains elk hunters have become avid students of permit-hunt applications. This is because your odds of taking a bull in a permit hunt typically range between 50 to 100 percent.
“We did increase the number of branch-antlered tags in the Dayton and Wenaha units,” Fowler said.
The Wenaha Unit lies largely within the Wenaha/Tucannon Wilderness, which straddles the Washington-Oregon border. According to Fowler, approximately 2,000 elk once wintered in the unit, but those numbers have declined to 500 or 600.
Once again, low calf survival is the culprit. A study by the WDFW showed that predation, primarily by cougars, was a major factor in the mortality of young elk.
Spikes are the elk that show up most frequently in the modern-firearms general-season harvest numbers, and they have varied considerably in recent years. During 2004, the GMUs flanking the Oregon border — Blue Creek, Mill Creek, Wenaha, Mountain View and Grande Ronde — accounted for 83 of the area’s 210 harvested elk.
Located on the east flank of the Blues, the Mountain View Unit turned out the most elk with 40 kills recorded, and its 10-percent success rate also led the region’s harvest stats.
The Blue Creek Unit, on the western edge of the range, is also among the Blue’s most reliable elk hunting areas, offering rifle, bow and blackpowder permit hunts in addition to general-season spike hunts.
Of particular note is the Watershed Hunt within the Mill Creek Unit, a modern-firearms-only hunt with a 3-point minimum bull elk or antlerless harvest restrictions. It is the only hunt open in the GMU.
Access in these units varies widely, depending on elevation and the lay of roads and river valleys. The Blue Creek Unit holds the least public land — basically a sliver of the Umatilla National Forest.
Moving east, nearly all of the Mill Creek Watershed and Wenaha units lie within the national forest, and the Wenaha Unit is almost completely designated as a roadless area within the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.
The area is popular with hunters with packhorses during the early seasons, before snow locks up the higher trails. The Mountain View Unit is approximately evenly divided between national forest and private ranch lands.
THE FOOTHILL AND VALLEY UNITS
The foothills of the northern Blue Mountains are incised by the Touchet and Tucannon rivers and Asotin Creek. Ranging from around 1,400 feet to about 5,000 feet in elevation, this transition zone contains the Dayton, Tucannon and Lick Creek GMUs — the other most productive units in the Blue Mountains.
During 2004, the Dayton Unit, which put out 35 elk during the general season, was the second-best showing in the region. The Tucannon Unit gave up 20 bulls, and another 26 were killed in the Lick Creek Unit.
Those numbers compare favorably, or even surpass, the harvest in the border units. However, two or three times as many hunters pursue elk in these units as in the southern ones; and during 2004, none of them posted success rates higher than 5 percent.
If you’re from out of town and plan to hunt the foothills, you should pay very close attention to maps. The mixture of land ownership in these units is complex. Much of it is privately owned, and you aren’t likely to receive permission to hunt.
The Dayton Unit contains the upper forks of the Touchet River and portions of the western edge of the Umatilla National Forest. Most of the Lick Creek GMU, which drains the northeast corner of the Blue Mountains, lies within the eastern portion of the national forest. It is honeycombed with logging and fire roads.
The Tucannon Unit encompasses extensive areas of public land, including national forest land and the W.T. Wooten Wildlife Area. However, last year’s School Fire destroyed approximately half of the unit’s elk and considerable elk habitat. You may want to avoid it this year.
“The Tucannon will be interesting this year,” the WDFW’s Fowler said.
He pointed out that burned in the fire was a large section of the elk fence, originally built to keep elk from moving north into agricultural land. If the fencing isn’t replaced, elk will damage crops and farm fences, and “we will be forced to reduce the herd,” he added.