NEAH BAY (April 20, 2004) – The idea that an animal might not be getting enough nutrients from the lush vegetation of the Olympic Peninsula seems absurd – but that may be the case for many of the elk here.
Despite a bounty of plants to eat, much of the food elk eat can pass through their system with minimal nutritional benefit. Elk are ruminants, like their fellow grazers, cows. Their digestive systems have evolved to deal specifically with vegetation such as grass and leaves. These plants are fibrous and bulky, and this limits the amount that an elk can eat at one time. This, in turn, limits their nutritional intake, if the plants are not high in nutritional value. It would be like a human filling up on celery. A possible culprit for reducing the nutritional value of plants on the Olympic Peninsula may be tannins. Tannins are naturally occurring chemicals in plants that can be seen in the tea-colored waters of many streams in the area. They block the elk’s ability to utilize the protein in the plants.
In an effort to improve elk populations in their traditional lands, the Makah Tribe has established a four-year study of nine elk herds in the Hoko, Sekiu, Sooes, and Ozette River watersheds. They are tracking their seasonal movements and noting their reactions to disturbances such as logging and hunting activities. The study focuses on home ranges, calving grounds and diet.
As part of the diet research, the tribe is looking at which plants elk eat at what times of year, and examining the nutritional values of those plants. Their goal is to understand how elk use their habitat in relation to the food available, and how to manage that habitat to provide them access to more nutritional food.
“In tracking the elk, we see that they use certain areas more than others at certain times of year,” said Kristina Krock, the current graduate student working on the elk project for the Makah Tribe. “They use clearcuts and river bottoms quite a bit. But studies have shown that plants growing in clearcuts have higher levels of tannins than plants growing in the more mature forests.”
The study area includes tribally-owned lands where only tribal members hunt as well as private and publically owned lands which both tribal and non-tribal hunters utilize. Herd numbers have improved from 200 in 1998 to about 300 animals today after the Makah Tribe and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife banned the harvest of cow (female) elk in the area. Through the study, the tribe hopes to find ways to raise populations to about 500 elk.
Information from the study could be helpful in identifying ways of improving elk forage in areas where pregnant cows feed to prepare their bodies for calving. Evidence suggests that cow elk on the western Olympic Peninsula only give birth every other year. “That’s directly linked to their body fat stores,” said Rob McCoy, wildlife biologist for the Makah Tribe. “They have to take the alternate year to recover before they calve again.” While this is a limiting factor to the growth rate of the herds, McCoy is quick to note the herds aren’t declining because of the poor nutritional value of their food. “Our cow to calf ratios remain pretty steady, but it does show how carefully we have to manage the cows in terms of harvest,” he said.
“One of the things we’re seeing in this study is how the elk really key in on grass coming out of winter. Grass has some of the highest rates of nutrients and is especially beneficial to pregnant cows,” said McCoy. “We could look at acquiring some of the farms here that are for sale and preserving those fields for use by elk,” said McCoy.
“This study is going to give everyone a better idea of what elk need to thrive in this environment.”
For more information contact: Rob McCoy, wildlife biologist, Makah Tribe, (360) 645-3058; Debbie Preston, Coastal information officer, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, (360) 374-5501.