The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe’s natural resources department thinned and mulched forestland on Puget Sound Energy (PSE) property last fall to improve elk forage in the North Cascades mountains.
Degraded and disconnected habitat is one of the main causes of the decline in numbers of the Nooksack elk herd, which went from a population of more than 1,700 20 years ago to about 300 by 2003. Since then, tribal and state co-managers have improved elk habitat in the region. Annual population surveys indicate that the herd is showing signs of recovery.
“Elk need a corridor of habitat that is rich in forage to keep them from becoming nuisances in populated areas,” said Scott Schuyler, natural resources director for the Upper Skagit Tribe.
PSE acquired the land from the Department of Natural Resources as part of the mitigation requirements of the 2008 relicensing agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the utility’s Baker River Hydroelectric Project.
A crew used chainsaws to remove hundreds of trees on about 3 acres of land and 1,500 feet of road. The trees, mostly small Douglas fir, were then put through a wood chipper to mulch the dry, rocky soil.
“We needed to remove enough of the canopy to let light in so grasses can grow,” said Upper Skagit timberland services manager Robert Schuyler. “The trees we left can be harvested later for a commercial crop.”
The mulched ground was seeded with grasses, clover and small burnet.
“There’s no forage out here, it’s all knee-deep salal, Oregon grape and sword fern, which elk don’t eat,” said Tony Fuchs, PSE wildlife biologist. “Once we get grasses and clover established, elk will find a better place to forage.”