Skokomish Tribe faces elk herd challenges

Elk mortality and failing radio collars have challenged the Skokomish Tribe’s efforts to track elk in the Olympic Peninsula.

“We don’t have nearly the number of marked animals we used to,” said Bethany Ackerman, the tribe’s wildlife management biologist.

Since 2008, the tribe has been tracking several elk herds within its hunting areas. While Ackerman estimates there are about 500 elk between Olympic National Park and Capitol Peak near Olympia, she is still trying to get a handle on the numbers in the southern portion of the Olympics.

Herd growth was trending upward in 2018, but has started to decline for a variety of reasons, Ackerman said.

One of the main causes of mortality is treponeme-associated hoof disease (TAHD, commonly called hoof rot), which is now in all of the herds that the tribe tracks, she said.

An elk wanders off after being collared. Tiffany Royal

“Declining elk populations will definitely affect tribal subsistence hunting,” she said. “If elk populations fall, tribal members will have less opportunity and fewer animals available.”

Studying population size, herd health and movement patterns involves putting GPS or VHF collars on at least one female elk in each herd.

GPS provides location data, showing a herd’s home range and seasonal movements. VHF signals are used to find the herd from the ground or the air when gathering data to determine the ratios of bull to cow, calf to cow, and the total elk in a herd. Both collars also have a built-in mortality sensor, which lets the tribe know if an animal has died.

The tribe was tracking 20 collars in 2018; Ackerman is now down to five collars, all VHF.

“That’s not enough marks to do a good population estimate,” she said. “I’m hoping to run another capture next spring and get better composition data.”

Staff from the Skokomish Tribe and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife prepare to collar an elk. Story and photo: Tiffany Royal