High Desert Elk

High Desert Elk
(Shutterstock image)

While the definition of "high desert" gets stretched at times in the Northwest, there's no doubting that some arid parts of Oregon and Washington host expanding populations of Rocky Mountain elk.

Photo by Eric J. Hansen

By Doug Rose

Some of the Pacific Northwest's most productive elk hunting occurs in the desert. Although most hunters tend to associate the Rocky Mountain elk of Oregon and Washington with mountain ranges and forest, huntable populations of elk are now widely distributed in Oregon's High Desert and the shrub-steppe of Washington's Columbia Basin.

In terms of numbers, desert elk do not compare with the populations of traditional mountain elk hunting destinations such as the Cascades Mountains near Yakima and Oregon's Wallowa Mountains. But many desert units are only open to permit hunts, and this increases the odds both of seeing elk and of encountering a trophy. Hunters more interested in meat than antlers will also discover that cow tags come fairly easily in desert units. This is a result of pressure on game managers to maintain populations at low enough numbers to avoid the wrath of agricultural interests and homeowners.

Much of the arid land between the Cascade Mountains foothills and Snake River most likely supported elk historically. Archeologists have unearthed elk bones from sites along the middle Columbia River, and there were numerous reports of elk and elk remains in the vicinity of Burns, Ore., in the late 1800s. However, elk were extirpated from virtually all of central and eastern Washington and Oregon before the dawn of the 20th century. And while Rocky Mountain elk from Montana and Idaho were widely introduced in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s, few, if any, were released in the desert. Elk are colonizers, however, and in recent years they have begun to reappear in areas where they have been absent for more than a century. They may also have established themselves in areas where they probably never before lived.

"I manage the northern portion of the Wagontire Unit," said Steve George, wildlife biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Bend office. "The elk are relatively new here. They are in the process of moving into new areas and their overall populations are also growing." George says that there is historical evidence of elk in the area, but they vanished not long after Euro-American settlers arrived in the late 1800s. He says this was probably attributable to a combination of over-hunting, habitat conversion to agriculture, and climate change. "But this is historic elk range," he said.

Predictably, the expansion of elk is not without problems. The most widely publicized recent example has occurred on the U. S. Department of Energy's Arid Lands Ecological Reserve (Hanford) in central Washington. In the 1970s, seven elk from the Yakima herd moved onto Hanford, which is off limits to the public but is surrounded by private farmland. Known eventually as the Rattlesnake Mountain herd, it expanded to 40 animals in 1983, 238 in the early 1990s, and to over 700 by 1998. An estimated 900 elk were in residence the following year, and landowners submitted more than $250,000 in damage claims. Then a 160,000-acre fire destroyed much of the herd's forage base, and the elk moved onto areas where they could be hunted.

More than 250 elk were killed under special 75-day, "any elk" regulations in 1999, and the WDFW trapped 177 elk and transferred them to the Selkirk and Blue mountains. However, the population is increasing again, and it remains above the target population of 375 animals.

Whether they are native to a region or not and whether they are available during the general season or by permit hunts, the bottom line for hunters, however, is simple: There is increasing opportunity to take elk in the arid lands of the Pacific Northwest. And some of these elk are as impressive as Rocky Mountain elk get anywhere within their range.

The term high desert, like rain forest, is a rather loosely applied in the Pacific Northwest. The sagebrush country south and east of Bend, for example, is widely known as high desert, and it certainly fits the definition of the term. However, the ODFW only includes its six most southeastern units in its High Desert area. These are the Whitehorse and Beatty's Butte units (on the Nevada border), the Owyhee Unit (abuts Idaho), and the adjacent Steens Mountain, Wagontire and Juniper units.

Elk have been expanding their overall numbers and range in these areas in recent years, and the percentage of public land ranges from 60 to 90. All modern firearms and muzzleloader elk hunting is by controlled hunt, although the September archery season is unlimited in number.

During the 1999 hunting season, the total bow and rifle harvest in High Desert units was 194 elk, and the numbers broke nearly evenly between bulls and cows. This is similar to recent years, when the harvest has ranged from 182 in 1998 to 169 in 1996, to 233 in 1995. However, the hunter success percentages in these units was 24 percent in 2000, and an average of more than one-quarter of all hunters have been successful in the High Desert in recent years. This is the highest of any Rocky Mountain elk area in Oregon.

Within the High Desert Units, the Steens Mt. and Wagontire units have consistently turned out the largest number of elk, typically accounting for more than two-thirds of the elk in the region. During 2002, 2,012 hunters applied for 745 High Desert modern firearms bull tags, which allowed a hunter to hunt in any of the six units, and 501 hunters vied for 444 antlerless tags. An additional 27 cow tags were available in the Wagontire Unit's Nov. 22-Dec. 14 rifle-permit hunt. Last year, the ODFW provided 167 muzzleloader tags for "one elk," and the odds of drawing them were good, with only 213 applicants.

Traveling north from Steens Mountain and Malheur Lake, the terrain retains the classic "desert" appearance, especially in the lower elevation areas east of the lake. But there are differences. For one, there are more trees, especially north of Burns, where the pines and larch of Malheur National Forest provide cover for elk. There is also more water.

The Malheur River and its north and south forks, along with the Little Malheur and Bully Creek, drain one of eastern Oregon's largest basins. For hunters familiar with areas like the Wallowa and Blue mountains, the Malheur and Beulah units look more like elk habitat than the High Desert units, and they indeed support larger elk herds. The two units that border the desert and mountains, the Malheur and Beulah, do not disappoint hunters, either, turning out several times the harvest of the more southern units.

The Malheur Unit carves out an irregular area, bound on the west by the communities of Burns and Senaca, on t

he east by Harper, and on the north by the Malheur National Forest. In recent years, it has yielded between 600 and 700 elk during the rifle and archery seasons, and rifle-hunter success rates have hovered around 30 percent, one of the best in the state.

As in the High Desert units, all centerfire rifle hunts are controlled hunts. The unit is divided by Highway 20 into "North Malheur" and "South Malheur" hunts, each with separate permits and drawings. The North Malheur River hunt is by far the most productive, and the ODFW issued 484 tags for the early and late bull hunts in 2002, as well as 372 antlerless tags; 1,085 and 881 hunters, respectively, put in for the bull permits and there were 803 applications for the cow tags.

No bull permits were issued in the south hunt last years, but there were 167 antlerless permits, although only 45 hunters drew for them. The "Drewsey Valley" antlerless hunt is new this year and includes portions of both the Malheur and Beulah units.

Located northeast of the Malheur Unit, the Beulah Unit extends from alfalfa fields near the Snake River to 7,800-foot peaks in the Monument Rock Wilderness to the valley of the North Fork of the Malheur River. Although the unit contains only 57 percent public land, it typically produces around 700 elk a year, slightly more than the Malheur Unit. Modern firearms hunters have two West Beulah, three East Beulah and the Bully Creek bull or either/sex hunts to choose from. The East Grant hunt is an antlerless hunt, with 269 modern firearms and 190 muzzleloader permits available last year (332 and 407 applications, respectively).

The West Beulah Hunts are by far the most productive, largely because the habitat is better and access on the Malheur National Forest is good; last year, 707 early and 789 late tags were available for the hunts. The East Beulah hunts are overwhelmingly private land and hunters need to secure permission before applying for a tag.

Although elk aren't as widespread in Washington's desert as in Oregon's deserts, Evergreen State hunters can pursue them with general modern firearms tags in a number of game management units near the Columbia River between Rock Island Dam and the Oregon border. There is no place where the WDFW is encouraging elk harvest more actively, however, than in the portions of the Kiona Unit surrounding the Department of Energy's Arid Land Ecology Reserve (Hanford) and, to a lesser extent, in the Alkali Unit, which is largely comprised of the Army's Yakima Firing Range.

Known as the Rattlesnake Mountain sub-herd, these elk damage crops, orchards and vineyards when they wander off from federal holdings. In 2003, the WDFW once again opened a split 75-day any-elk season in the Kiona Unit, and it issued 100 Alkali A modern firearm (any elk) and 50 Alkali B muzzleloader tags.

Unfortunately, these elk are neither easy to manage nor to hunt. "The Kiona is a big unit," said Lee Stream, WDFW Region 3 wildlife biologist. "But most of the elk are concentrated on the Arid Lands Ecology Unit where there is no public access at all." The best strategy to obtain access to private land, of course, is to approach the owner well before the hunting season. "It's usually an iffy proposition getting permission from a landowner," Stream cautions. This year's modern firearms seasons run Sept. 2-15; Oct. 6-19; Oct. 25-Nov. 2 and Nov. 22-Dec. 31.

As a result of the large harvest and trapping and the transfer in the wake of the 2000 wildfire, the Hanford population was reduced from 838 in 1998 to 439 in 2001. During the 2000 season, hunters killed 280 elk (205 bulls/75 cows) in the Kiona Unit, 253 of them from the area around Hanford. However, Stream says that the elk are rebuilding and that they tend to remain on the reserve during the day, and then move onto private property at night and damage crops. "We've been pressing real hard to get access to the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve," he said.

The Alkali Unit is located north of the Kiona Unit, and the success of hunters there is largely a function of access to the Yakima Firing Range. "I've been here 26 years," Stream said, "and hunting on the Firing Range usually depends on the commander," he said. But he adds that recent international conflicts have restricted opportunity. "They've gotten tighter on access," he said. "Now you have to go through a course and display a placard on your vehicle. You used to be able to go anyplace you wanted but now there are quite a few restrictions."

Stream says the WDFW tries to maintain low elk numbers in the unit, both to preserve traditional mule deer range and to limit elk damage claims. In recent years, opportunity has varied between open seasons and permit hunts, depending on the size of the herd. During the 2000 season, rifle hunters killed 21 elk, blackpowder hunters took 15 and archers killed four.

The shrub-steppe habitat north of Interstate 90 and west of the Columbia River supports more elk and contains significantly more public land than the units to the south. This is, after all, the home ground of the state's Colockum herd, and it includes the Quilomene and Coluckum WDFW wildlife areas where hunting is allowed.

Until a series of winterkills in the 1990s, the Colockum herd was one of the largest in the state. Much of the hunting effort in the past, as well as during the tighter seasons of recent years, however, has focused on the higher elevation areas of the Quilomene (GMU 329) and Mission (GMU 351) units. But elk are also available in the lower elevations of these units, as well as on the West Bar (GMU 330) unit.

"It's all arid land north of Vantage," the WDFW's Stream said. "It's a major wintering range for elk." Stream says the winter habitat extends to the top of the ridge between the Columbia and Yakima rivers, which is the tree line, and north to Tarpiscan Creek or slightly farther. "The hunting season is usually late enough for elk hunters."

The Quilomene and Mission units are both open during the Oct. 25-Nov. 2 modern firearms season, under the standard spike-only regulations in eastern Washington. The opportunity to pursue adult bulls in these units is limited to hunters who draw permits. The Quilomene A hunt is only open to Advanced Hunter Education graduates; 2,000 hunters vied for 20 tags in 2002. The Quilomene B hunt is for muzzleloaders (five tags; 301 applicants), while Quilomene C is an archery tag (35 tags; 401 applicants). In addition, there is a new Mission any-bull permit hunt (five permits) this year, and AHE graduates also had a chance for 40 new Colockum A and B permits in the Cook Creek Elk Area (3028). The tiny West Bar (GMU 330) unit is open only during the early general-season archery season and during two centerfire antlerless permit hunts, and an antlerless muzzleloader hunt.

Access in the low-elevation "desert" reaches of the Quilomene Unit is primarily on WDFW land. The 45,143-acre Quilomene Wildlife Area and neighboring 92,108-acre Colockum Wildlife Area provide excellent opportunity to winter range between Quilomene and Tarpiscan creeks. There are scattered parcels of private land, however, and hunters should pay attention to their surroundings. As in all desert areas, elk feel ex

posed after hearing a few shots, and they tend to cluster strongly around areas that provide cover-riparian areas along streams, ravines and gulches.

The unit has four modern firearms seasons this year: Sept. 2 -15; Oct. 6-19; Oct. 25-Nov. 2; and Nov. 22-Dec. 31. Any elk is legal. During the 2000 season, hunters killed 280 elk in the Kiona Unit (205 cows/75 bulls), and there was a combined 22 percent success rate.

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