Currently, more elk are roaming the river valleys and ridgelines of the Olympic Peninsula than at any time in the last 20 years.
Photo by Windigo Images.
And for the last several seasons, hunters have tagged more bull elk in the peninsula’s remote West End than they have in a decade. Yet far fewer hunters pursue these elk than they did 10 or 20 years ago.
The reason is simple: During the late 1980s and ’90s, the elk population in the Olympic Peninsula’s celebrated rain forest units declined significantly. From an estimated 12,000 elk outside Olympic National Park in the early ’80s, the numbers fell to around 6,000 by the mid-1990s.
Harvest success rates fell just as dramatically. Legendary Region 6 Game Management Units like Quinault Ridge and Sole Duck, units that had reliably given up more than 50 elk every year, produced only a dozen or so during the late 1990s.
Even the celebrated Clearwater Unit, where hunters killed more than 200 elk in 1991, gave up only 17 bulls in 2000.
It took hunters a while to accept that things were really as bad as they seemed. As recently as 1995, the West End’s more popular units still attracted between 500 and 1,000 hunters. But the word eventually got out. In 1991, the Sole Duck and Clearwater units attracted 1,030 and 2,947 hunters, respectively.
By 2005, those numbers had fallen to 350 and 462. Since the depths of the early 1990s, however, elk populations in the West End units have actually increased substantially. Between 1996 and 2000, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Olympic Peninsula’s fall elk population outside the park grew from 6,000 to 8,610 — a 34 percent increase.
“There are certainly plenty of elk,” said Bob Gooding, the long-time proprietor of Olympic Sporting Goods in Forks. “Elk are in pretty good shape in the Sole Duck and Clearwater and all our units.”
For hunters, more elk has translated into increased harvests and better success ratios. At the same time, the rain-forest valleys are nowhere near as crowded as they were during elk seasons 20 years ago. As a result, the 2008 season may be your best time in a long time to hunt Roosevelt elk on the Olympic Peninsula’s West End.
ROOSEVELT ELK COUNTRY
Roosevelt elk have been an integral part of the Olympic Peninsula’s ecology for as long as humans have inhabited this rain-soaked northwest corner of the country.
The word Elwha, which is also the name of the peninsula’s third largest river and a band of the S’Klallam Indian Tribe, means “elk.”
In the 19th century, when Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt created large federal reserves in the Olympic Mountains, it was primarily to protect elk. And in 1938, when Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation establishing a national park in the Olympics, it was almost named Elk National Park rather than Olympic National Park.
Until the recent decline of its elk populations, the peninsula’s western river valleys had also always been one of the Pacific Northwest’s most popular elk-hunting destinations.
A combination of features makes the West End such an attractive place to hunt elk:
- Hunting is allowed on extensive areas of public land.
- The vast majority of the land outside the national park is managed timberlands with a high road density. This gives hunters without guides excellent access to the elk’s range.
- An active timber harvest rotation creates a patchwork of age-classes of forest that can support large elk populations.
However, the main factor that led thousands of hunters on annual fall pilgrimages to the West End — what made them put up with the thick understory vegetation, absence of flat ground and incessant November rain — was a chance for one of the rain forest’s legendary huge bull elk.
Five of the current record-book Roosevelt elk modern firearms records and three archery records came from West End units. Moreover, all of these trophies were bagged relatively recently.
PROBLEM –AND SOLUTION
The steep decline in Olympic Peninsula elk numbers of the late 1980s wasn’t the first time it had happened.
Indeed, historians estimate that by the late 19th century, unregulated market- and subsistence hunting had reduced the total population to several thousand animals.
Elk hunting was banned for nearly 30 years, and the herds rebounded dramatically.
During the 1970s and early ’80s, hunters killed about 1,000 elk annually, most of them on the celebrated West End units. Then the herds began to decline again.
Many people attributed it to the creation of large habitat reserves to protect the spotted owl and salmon. They argued that the reduced timber harvest resulted in fewer clearings that produce elk forage.
Others thought that restrictions on bear and cougar hunting left too many predators in the woods. Still others claimed that a significant factor was the high cow harvest by sport and tribal hunters.
In 1996, the WDFW and Olympic Peninsula Indian tribes created a Cooperative Elk Management Group. Its mission was to “reverse the decline in the Olympic Herd elk numbers and ensure populations throughout the Olympic Peninsula are huntable in perpetuity.”
To understand the causes behind the decline and the best strategies to restore the population, the group commissioned research and analyzed existing information from a number of sources.
In 1997, the WDFW changed the general-season regulations for bull elk to “3-points-or-better” on all West End units and shortened the season from 12 to nine days. It also eliminated nearly all cow hunts.
The Cooperative Elk Management Group concluded that between 1985 and 1996, overharvest of antlerless elk probably led to the population decline. High cow harvest can rapidly reduce elk populations, because elk have a low reproductive rate. However, reducing cow
mortality can also quickly increase the number of elk.
Fortunately, by the beginning of the new century, surveys indicated that elk were on the increase for most western Olympic GMUs. In 2005, the WDFW completed its “Olympic Elk Herd Management Plan.”
It set a number of goals, including increasing the total herd to at least 11,350 elk outside the park, improving scientific accuracy and maintaining a proportion of adult bulls consistent with the statewide objectives.
The WDFW’s most recent Elk Status and Trend Report suggests that elk herds and hunting success have continued to improve.
“Harvest figures of legal bulls taken during the 2006 state elk seasons confirm trends observed in recent years,” wrote district biologist H.M. Zahn. “The bull harvest on the Olympic Peninsula is now above the very low levels observed during the early to mid-1990s, although still below the 1980s levels.”
Anyone who has paid attention to Washington’s Roosevelt elk harvest numbers over the decades knows that the GMUs in the WDFW’s Population Management Unit 65 — Clearwater, Sole Duck, Matheny and Quinault Ridge — have historically been among the most productive in western Washington.
Collectively, these GMUs extend from the western boundary of Olympic National Park down to Highway 101 and encompass the middle reaches of the Sol Duc, Calawah, Bogachiel, Hoh, Clearwater and Quinault river valleys.
Nearly all of them are public or private timberlands, and virtually all of them are the exact mixture of foothills, river bottoms and forests that produces lots of elk.
Sprawling over 300 square miles, the Clearwater Unit is the largest and most productive PMU. It ranges from the Hoh and South Fork Hoh rivers on the north, down through the Clearwater River basin to the national park’s Queets River Corridor. Much of it is within the state’s Hoh-Clearwater State Forest, where hunting is allowed.
The Department of Natural Resources pursues an aggressive timber harvest policy, and the forest is honeycombed with logging roads.
Two years ago, the Clearwater gave up 37 bulls and had a 7.4 percent hunter-success ratio. And in 2005, it yielded 39 elk and an 8.4 percent harvest rate. According to the 2000 population estimate, the Clearwater contained 1,800 elk, which was only 200 below its population objective. The Clearwater and Hoh mainlines provide access to the state forest.
The Sole Duck Unit (607) is the PMU’s northernmost GMU. It extends from Highway 101 down through the Sol Duc and Calawah drainages to the Bogachiel River and then back west to Highway 101.
It contains a mixture of landowners, including private homes and ranches, U.S. Forest Service, Department of Natural Resources and private timberlands. Access is available from the main forest arteries such as Forest Road 29, but many smaller logging roads are gated.
The Sole Duck unit’s relative proximity to the highway is convenient for hunters from Port Angeles and Forks. It usually attracts more hunters and gives up more elk than any other unit in PMU 65 except the Clearwater.
In recent years, hunters have killed around 30 elk annually and averaged a little less than 9 percent success rates. The Sol Duc herd grew from around 500 elk in 1996, to 600 in 2000. That’s still 300 below its management objective.
The Matheny Unit is literally surrounded by Olympic National Park and the Quinault Indian Reservation. It’s the least hunted unit in the PMU and usually turns out the fewest elk.
But that can be misleading. The area it encompasses — mid- to low-elevation timberlands between the Queets and Quinault river valleys — isn’t on the way to any popular fishing or camping destination. As a result, few people — even hunters — from outside the Olympic Peninsula have ever set foot in it.
The Salmon River Road, FR 21, and Prairie Creek Road provide access from Highway 101.
The Matheny and Salmon Block Cooperative Road Management Area provide walk-in access and usually, better hunting.
The Quinault Ridge GMU — specifically, the rugged Colonel Bob Wilderness, which seems to climb vertically from the south shore of Lake Quinault — contains some of the steepest terrain in PMU 65.
Fortunately, most of the unit’s elk live south of the wilderness, where the hills taper off considerably.
The unit runs southward to the northern tributaries of the Humptulips River and eastward to the ridgeline between the Wynoochee and Humptulips watersheds.
The Quinault Ridge, Newberry Creek and Donkey Creek roads provide access to the timberlands east of Highway 101. Most side roads and spurs are gated.
In recent years, elk hunters have killed around 15 elk in the Quinault Ridge unit and had a 9 percent success rate. Those numbers show the least change since the West End elk populations began to improve.
The WDFW’s most recent population estimate of 550 is only about half of its target. However, the WDFW issues five permits for hunters with Advanced Hunter Education training for an early October either-sex hunt. This hunt falls during the rut, and a very high percent of the hunters who draw tags are successful.
The WDFW’s PMU 66 contains the Hoko, Dickey, Pysht and Goodman GMUs. The one thing all these units have in common is that at some point, they touch salt water — either the Pacific Ocean, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, or in the case of the Dickey, both. That means they lie outside the core of the Olympic Mountains, and they are drained by smaller rivers and a network of creeks.
Historically, they have given up fewer elk and attracted less attention. But hunters who become familiar with a specific unit and an individual herd can enjoy fine hunting.
The Dickey Unit, the largest in the PMU, and supports by far the most elk in the PMU — more than 1,100. It is almost entirely timber company land. The three forks of the Dickey River are characterized by a maze of wetlands, feeder creeks, alder bottoms and brush that encompass a large area in the southern portion of the unit.
Fewer than 300 hunters have pursued elk in the unit recently, and they have averaged about 25 elk.
“There are plenty of elk in the Dickey,” said Bob Gooding of Olympic Sporting Goods.
“But it’s really brushy and pretty flat. There can be an elk 30 feet from you, and you won’t know it.”
The Hoko GMU extends west from the Hoko River to the Makah Indian Reservation and south and west to Olympic National Park and the ocean.
Like the Dickey Unit, it’s primarily commercial forest. Most secondary timber-company roads are gated, which may partly explain why the unit’s harvest numbers have remained relatively flat.
In 1991, when the other West End units were still producing scores of elk, it yielded only two bulls. In 2006, the number was six.
In 2000, according to the WDFW, the herd was approximately 300 elk, which is 200 below its objective.
The Pysht Unit includes the forests east of the Clallam and west of the Elwha rivers. The most productive areas lie within the Merrill-Ring Pysht Tree Farm, where access is available only to hunters who buy one of a limited number of permits.
Outside the tree farm, hunters haven’t fared particularly well recently. Four elk were killed in 1991, five in 2000 and seven in 2006.
That isn’t surprising when you know that Pysht supports the fewest elk of any western Olympic Peninsula unit: only 160 by the 2000 estimate.
The Goodman Unit basically runs from Highway 101 to the ocean and from the Bogachiel to the Hoh rivers, regularly vying with the Dickey as the most productive in the PMU.
However, unlike the Dickey, which was a permit hunt for many years, it has always had a general season.
Approximately 600 elk roam the unit, about 300 fewer than objectives. Two years ago, hunters tagged 15 bulls and had a 9 percent success rate
Regardless of which unit you choose, the Olympic Peninsula’s coastal elk herds are definitely on their way back. This fall, hunters willing to challenge the West End’s tough terrain and rain will enjoy their best odds in a long time.