Passive Elk Traps Aid Efforts To Bolster Herd

elk grazing
elk grazing
Elk graze near one of two passive traps near Mount St. Helens used by Point Elliott treaty Indian tribes as part of a joint effort to supplement the North Cascades elk herd.
The traps significantly reduce stress to the captured animals. Photo: Chris Madsen

A cooperative effort between the Point Elliott Treaty tribes and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to bolster a weak population of elk in the North Cascades resulted in the successful transfer of four more animals from the Mount St. Helens area this fall. The elk were moved to help augment the flagging Nooksack elk herd, also known as the North Cascades elk herd, while reducing the overpopulated Mount St. Helens herd, which is outstripping its food supply.

“We are pleased with the results of this joint effort,” said Todd Wilbur, Swinomish Tribe, who chairs the Inter-tribal Wildlife Committee of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “The tribes are committed to enhancing and protecting elk populations throughout western Washington. This project will dramatically improve the health of the North Cascades elk herd.”

Assisted by Mark Smith, president of the Mount St. Helens Preservation Society, the tribes used two passive traps to capture the four cow elk. A larger trapping effort was canceled due to volcanic activity inside the mountain.

Last year, the tribes and the state worked together using a helicopter to round up 41 animals for transfer. “This project is just one more way the tribes are working to preserve wildlife,” said Scott Schuyler, natural resources policy coordinator with the Upper Skagit Tribe.

The passive corral traps are baited with apples, a favorite elk snack. Once a number of animals have entered the trap to feed, the gated opening is closed by remote control. “This trap is the least invasive elk capture method people have come up with yet,” said Shawn Yanity, chairman of the Stillaguamish Tribe. “We want to minimize stress on the animals.”

Captured adult cow elk were fitted with radio-transmitting collars before release, which will allow biologists to track their movements and habitat uses.

The Point Elliott treaty tribes, working in cooperation with the state co-managers and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation volunteers, will monitor the movements of the transplanted elk for the next two years. The Point Elliott tribes include Lummi, Muckleshoot, Nooksack, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, Suquamish, Swinomish, Tulalip and Upper Skagit.

Biologists believe a number of factors contributed to the decline in the North Cascades elk herd’s population, including habitat changes and overhunting. WDFW and the tribes have forbidden hunting in the herd’s core area since 1993, and hunting seasons for the area will not be established until elk populations have reached a recovery goal. – J. Shaw