May 15, 2006

Critics Assail Washington Over Starving Elk

MOUNT ST. HELENS WILDLIFE AREA, Wash. -- More than 25 years after its eruption turned this river valley into moonscape, elk living in the shadow of Mount St. Helens are starving to death at a rate that has alarmed many observers.

This winter's elk die-off was the highest recorded by state wildlife managers in seven years, and some critics say the survivors are so undernourished and the forage so poor that another major winter kill could be on the way.

State officials have responded by bumping up the number of hunting permits and pledging to speed up their sweeping management plan for the thousands of elk that survive. But the plan already has languished for five years, and skeptics say the government appears unconcerned with helping elk survive the coming winter.

"If these were horses these people would be in jail," said Mark Smith, a local businessman and head of the Mount St. Helens Preservation Society.

The Mount St. Helens area is home to more than 13,000 elk. They range together in various subgroups, tied mostly by shared geography in what Washington state wildlife officials consider the state's largest herd.

Wintertime deaths from starvation are a regular phenomenon.

This year, the state counted about 630 elk wintering in the Mount St. Helens State Wildlife Area, an open area of volcanic mudflow. Sixty-three likely starved at the end of the season.

That's the highest recorded figure since the winter of 1999, when about 80 elk died. But it's still within the 10 percent death figure considered typical, said Brian Calkins, the state's regional wildlife manager.

"I don't think our population has increased a whole lot since 1999. I think the weather probably plays a lot more into it than anything else," he said.

The alarm over elk deaths was amplified this spring when residents of southwestern Washington saw a privately filmed video on the local television news, showing dead and dying elk around Mount St. Helens. Some elk in the video were so weak that they lay on their sides and pawed at the ground in unsuccessful attempts to stand up.

Meanwhile, foresters for Weyerhaeuser Co. (WY), which owns vast tracts of timber land around the volcano, have been troubled by what they see as too many elk, company spokeswoman Jackie Lang said.

Aside from encounters with starving animals, company foresters must contend with elk eating the tender tops of young trees, which interferes with crucial periods of tree growth.

"The problem is, we've got too many elk and not enough forage. So what's the solution? Either provide more forage or reduce the elk population," Lang said.


On the Net:

Fish and Wildlife: http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/game/elk/sthelens.htm

Preservation Society: http://www.mtsthelensociety.org/