Saturday, May 10, 2008

Elk Died at Mount St. Helens, Here we go Again

It was a harsh winter. The price of gas rose unmercifully. We humans are having to make serious choices. Meanwhile, the long winter and deep snow pack in the Cascades caused a large die-off in the St. Helens area elk herd. It first hit the internet and new media on Thursday . Today, it made the front page of the local paper at the foot of Mount St. Helens itself.

Thus far, no sad photos have appeared in the media. Give that a few days as once again, folks all over the state and region will shed many tears for the elk. I have one word folks. It is nature. It is the natural way of culling the herd. Sure, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife trucked in 131 tons of hay to try and assist the herd, but clearly this was a vicious winter.

We have to consider why the WDFW is even trying to feed the herd. Sure, they were given an informal mandate in the last good winter of 2005-06 when about 60 elk died after a banner snow year and then late season snows. That figure probably didn’t include the 37 dead elk that I observed in the Upper Toutle and Coldwater Canyons that are outside of the Elk Refuge range, but within the boundaries of the National Volcanic Monument.

Predators made a return to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. The population of coyotes exploded in 2007 and there were many sightings of mountain lions near Coldwater Lake. Some might think that plenty of food during the winter and spring allowed a fragile population to have sucess.

I believe that the WDFW considers the answer to the problem can be solved by hunters. Fish and Wildlife has negotiated access into the most untraveled and scientifically sensitive areas of the Monument for the purpose of hunting. It is a case of humans trying to interfere with the natural process.

The elk in the Toutle Valley have multiple problems with their ecosystem.

#1-Much of the land is privately owned timberlands. After the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, the timber was salvaged and then replanted. Those stands are now 28 year old, dog-hair, light free, mono-culture stands of Douglas Fir. Areas outside the National Volcanic Monument contain poor browse conditions, even in the mild, low elevation areas of the valley where elk historically have spent the winter to avoid the heavy snow packs in the high country.

#2-What was elk heaven is changing rapidly. The open, prairie landscape that appeared after the 1980 eruption and collapse of Mount St. Helens that supplied the ultimate Western Washington habitat for elk is disappearing. There is less browse as groves of alder try to take the landscape to the next level of climatic vegetation.

The bottom line is that elk are going to die. The landscape can’t support the population that it did during the late 1980s and the 1990s. The population is going to crash. So we have a choice, we can allow the corp of northwest hunters to go in and cull the biggest and the best, or we can allow nature to take the weakest. Regardless, the northwest is going to have to get used to seeing dead elk in the area of Mount St. Helens.

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