PACKWOOD – The South Rainier elk herd is smaller than previously thought, according to a new population model developed by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.

“Our results point to a herd size of about 900. That’s about 1,100 fewer animals than a previous estimate by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife,” said Barbara Moeller, wildlife management biologist with the Puyallup Tribe. The tribal target population for the herd is 2,100.

The model, which is the first of its kind in western Washington, allows the tribe to more easily estimate the size of the herd using aerial surveys. Called a “sightability model,” the program helps determine population size by gauging the relationship between the number of elk that can be seen from the air those that can’t be seen because of the amount and type of vegetation in the area. Since the success of the model work completed by the tribe, state wildlife managers have followed suit and are currently trying to develop similar models for estimating elk populations for both the Nooksack and the Mount St. Helens herds.

“Previously, state wildlife managers have made elk population estimates with a technique that uses harvest data”, Moeller said. “Using a sightability model approach we can be more accurate and efficient.” The older method used by the state doesn’t take into consideration the mortalities that occur in the population resulting from causes other than reported harvest. Moralities caused by wounding during hunting, auto-collisions, poaching, predation, natural causes, and disease, for example, aren’t’ taken into consideration.

Years of research and radio-collaring by the tribe were used to build the model. “The model building phase of this method required the use of radio-collared animals,” Moeller said. “The population modeling work we have completed complements the ongoing management activities and herd research project we are working on completing.”

The South Rainier elk herd is smaller than it should be because of several factors, one being the fact that development has encroached on the herd’s historic winter range area. “These elk depend on there being food in the valley floors in the winter, below where snow typically is,” Moeller said. “But, those traditional feeding areas are being taken up by development. Too much of the elk’s traditional range has been fragmented and continues to be threatened by further development allowed by state and county officials.”

To help reverse this trend, two years ago the tribe restored more than 300 acres of winter elk habitat. The tribe is also working to protect existing elk habitat by buying 45 acres of bottom land that is already being used by elk.

“Having a better handle on how many elk are out there equals better management,” Moeller said. “The more closely and accurately we can track their numbers, the better chance we have of managing a sustainable population of elk for many years to come.”

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For more information, contact: Barbara Moeller, wildlife biologist, Puyallup Tribe of Indians, (253) 841-0377. Emmett O’Connell, information officer, NWIFC, (360) 528-4304, eoconnell@nwifc.org