Tribes Improve Elk Habitat In Anticipation of Transfer

BAKER LAKE (July 3, 2003) — The work of wildlife recovery is often hard and not always glamorous. Once the tribal and state co-managers agree on the best available science, sometimes the path toward saving animal species is walked with a rake and a shovel in hand.

That’s why tribal leaders and other volunteers are out in the Baker Lake area on a blistering hot June Saturday, painstakingly ripping out noxious weeds and lifting heavy salt blocks into place. Tribal and state biologists have established which plants are healthy for elk and which plants are poisonous: the next step is the laborious task of removing certain dangerous non-native species and replacing them with a mix of healthy native plants.

“This place is loaded with tracks, so we know it will support elk,” said Todd Wilbur, chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission’s Inter-Tribal Wildlife Committee, after removing a burgeoning stand of scotch broom. “We’re trying to make these sites as elk-friendly as possible.”

Later this fall, treaty Indian tribes in western Washington and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will transfer animals from the healthy Mount St. Helens herds into the north sound, an event three years in the making. In preparation for this crucial project, the Point Elliott treaty tribes are teaming up with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and forest products corporation Crown Pacific to improve the region’s habitat.

At two sites, one along Bear Creek and another along the South Fork of the Nooksack River, tribal and non-tribal crews have spent months removing undesirable plants like foxglove and cultivating a variety of staple foods for hungry elk. These efforts will assist animals already living in the area as well as the anticipated new arrivals.

“Years of work are about to pay off,” said Wilbur. “This would never have happened without the cooperation of all the Point Elliott treaty tribes.” Those tribes include Stillaguamish, Tulalip, Lummi, Nooksack, Swinomish, Upper Skagit, Sauk-Suiattle, Muckleshoot and Suquamish.

The goals here are simple: make sure elk that roam these fields, meadows and tree stands are well-fed and healthy. In turn, that improves safety for the herd in other ways.

“Having food available here in the meadows prevents elk from wandering toward the highway,” said Shawn Yanity, vice chairman of the Stillaguamish Tribe. “By ripping up invasive plants and replacing them with nutritional grasses that elk love, we hope to improve their chances of survival.”

Additionally, crews took on the arduous task of hauling 50-pound medicinal salt blocks into the surrounding woods, placing the heavy but healthy treats near sites where elk like to wallow. The hearty blocks contain medicine to guard against parasites and are full of vitamins and minerals for wandering bull and cow elk.

The Nooksack elk herd, which was traditionally hunted by the region’s tribes, needs all the help it can get. Two decades ago, nearly 2,000 animals roamed these tracts of land as part of the herd. Due to a variety of factors, habitat destruction included, the population has dwindled below 400 elk. The few surviving animals wander their historic home in scattered bands. Both tribal and non-tribal hunting has been closed for over five years to prevent the herd from dipping further toward extinction.

“The tribes have proven we’re willing to make great sacrifices for the future of the resource,” said Wilbur. “Giving up hunting is a huge blow to us, but we’ve been willing to make that sacrifice, and also commit millions of dollars and thousands of hours toward restoration work. In the long term, it’s unacceptable to us to let these animals die off. We’ll work as hard as we have to in order to save them.”

The Swinomish Tribe supplied the funding for the restoration work.

“Having healthy elk herds is absolutely essential to the tribes; working together is the best way to achieve that goal,” said Wilbur. “We’re thrilled to partner up with other groups and organizations who also care about preserving our elk.”


For more information, contact: Jeff Shaw, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, 360.424.8226; Todd Wilbur, 360.466.3163; Shawn Yanity, 360.652.7362, ext. 282.