Puyallup Tribe Protects Elk Winter Habitat

PACKWOOD (February 9, 2006) – Every winter a 1,200 head elk herd migrates from upper alpine areas around Mt. Rainier National Park and Mt. Adams to the Cowlitz River valley in search of food around the town of Packwood.

“Habitat in the upper alpine areas, such as the national park and the protected wilderness areas where this herd spends the summer, is the most protected and highest quality summer habitat available,” said Barbara Moeller, wildlife biologist for the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. “Habitat outside those areas is not necessarily protected and may not be as high quality from year to year because forest management limits available food.”

Protecting and improving winter habitat for the South Rainier Elk Herd is the focus of a new effort by the tribe and the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit land conservancy organization. One of the reasons the South Rainier Elk Herd is not considered self-sustainable is because of limited high quality habitat. Currently the heard is declining at a regular pace. To be self sustaining that trend needs to be reversed.

After mapping the elk herd’s winter range, the tribe and the conservation group will approach landowners in the Cowlitz Valley to see if they’re interested in selling conservation easements to protect the herd. Conservation easements are deed restrictions landowners voluntarily place on their properties to protect natural resources.

“Elk just use the habitat like they always have if they can get to it. The maps will show us the elk’s favorite places during the winter,” said Moeller. “The only way to make sure this elk herd is strong is for private landowners to have a real hand in their conservation. Elk need good habitat.”

The tribe is using radio-telemetry data collected over several years to draw the habitat usage maps for the herd. The tribe keeps as many as 30 animals fitted with radio collars, allowing Moeller to gather monthly data on their movements. “Because we collect this data on such a regular basis, we have a pretty good idea how these elk move through their habitat during the seasons,” said Moeller. That data also lets the tribe keep track of the herd’s health by tracking deaths and survival.

The radio collaring will also help the tribe develop a model that will lead to more accurate population estimates for the herd. The model, one of the first of its kind in western Washington, will allow the tribe to estimate the herd’s size and composition without having to try to actually count each animal.

“Elk depend on the quality of their habitat,” said Moeller. “Protecting habitat is the only surefire way to guarantee that the herd will be healthy in the long run.”

For more information, contact: Barbara Moeller, Wildlife Biologist, Puyallup Tribe of Indians, (253) 573-7993. Emmett O’Connell, information officer, NWIFC, (360) 528-4304, [email protected]

Mount Rainier Elk Fast Facts

• Scientific name: Cervus elaphus.
• Elk are part of the same family that includes moose, caribou, mule deer, and white-tailed deer.
• A cow elk can weigh up to 500 pounds and measure 4.5 feet at the shoulder and 6.5 feet from nose to tail. A bull elk can weigh up to 700 pounds and measure 5 feet at the shoulder and 8 feet from nose to tail.
• Generally, elk eat grasses and parts of woody plants in winter; grass in the spring and fall; grass and forbs (low-growing, soft-stemmed plants) in summer.
• Body colors vary from deep copper brown to tan with a beige rump patch. An elks legs and necks are often darker than its body.