So far, elk 'doing fine' this winter

MOUNT ST. HELENS - Winter has arrived in the Cascades, but the Mount St. Helens elk herd hasn't yet needed any supplemental feeding.

In fact, the animals that live on the Mount St. Helens mudflow might not need help from humans anytime this winter, said Dave Ware, game division manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“They seem to be doing fine,” he said. “But the situation could change if we get a lot of snow.”

The plight of Mount St. Helens elk gained attention during the winter of 2007-08, when deep snow limited winter browsing, and animals starved and died.

But expanded hunting and winter deaths have reduced the herd size, and the elk didn’t need additional food – in the form of hay – last winter, Ware said.

Biologists estimate that 260 of the elk are on the mudflow, and they seem to be in good shape, Ware said.

The elk herd boomed in size after the 1980 eruption, which turned forest land into open land that grows elk food. The herd might be shrinking and adjusting to shorter rations in the maturing forest near the Mount St. Helens blast zone.

Fish and Wildlife is using radio collars to track and count elk near Mount St. Helens. The three-year study still has two more years to go, Ware said.

Biologists will have a more accurate picture of how many elk actually live in the area – and how many animals the land can support.

Mount St. Helens elk also started winter with fat packed on during a mild spring and a good summer that featured lots of rain in August, Ware said.

Fish and Wildlife is about to start feeding elk at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, near U.S. Highway 12 and state Route 410.

Fish and Wildlife has fed elk in that area for years to keep the animals from migrating into agricultural areas near Yakima.

Mild weather with daytime temperatures in the 40-degree range has helped elk get by without hay so far, but heavy snow will start the feeding program at Oak Creek, assistant manager Bruce Berry said.

“It’s a day-to-day decision,” he said.

The 2009 Legislature turned down a proposed law that would have banned private residents from feeding big-game animals.

Mark Smith, the owner of the Eco Park Resort near the Mount St. Helens mudflow, said he counted 26 elk on his property last weekend.

Smith, who has fed elk for the past few winters, said he probably will start feeding the animals a bale of hay each day.

“They look OK,” Smith said. “They’re not in great shape.”

Chester Allen: 360-754-4226