A severe winter threatened to starve the White River elk herd, which the Muckleshoot Tribe has spent years helping to recover.

The tribe’s wildlife program trucked in alfalfa to support food resources that were minimized by this year’s deep snow pack.

“We have spent a lot of time and money trying to recover this elk herd, and we wanted to ensure that all of our efforts were not undone due to this severe winter,” said Mike Jerry, chairman of the Muckleshoot wildlife committee.

The size of the herd has improved in recent years from a low of 700 animals in the early 2000s to around 900 today.

However, with the depth and hardness of the snow pack and significant harvest of the herd’s winter timber resources, wildlife managers stepped in to help.

“During intense winters with a lot of snow, we tend to see a lot of elk having a hard time getting enough food to help them survive to spring, especially now with so little forest cover remaining,” said David Vales, Muckleshoot wildlife biologist. “The forest cover is essential to intercept snow and reduce depth.”

Near Huckleberry Creek, the snow was almost 3 feet deep.

“The snow is so deep in some areas that they’re having a hard time even moving around,” said Mike Middleton, Muckleshoot wildlife biologist.

Over the winter, the tribe hauled 56 tons of alfalfa to nearly two dozen remote sites throughout the upper White River.

“We wanted to make sure to disperse the feed, so we weren’t getting large concentrations of elk in one spot,” Vales said. The department purchased a special off-road snow vehicle to reach remote feed sites that had too much snow.

The tribe conducted a population survey this spring to estimate the number of mortalities and to assess how the elk fared over the winter.

“Having healthy elk herds is a top priority for the Muckleshoot Tribe, because we have always depended on the health of our natural resources,” said Melvin Daniels, vice-chair of the wildlife program. “We are happy that we can help the elk population up there, because we rely on them to feed our families.”