The Valley’s Famous Elk Herd and its caretaker: Upper Snoqualmie Valley Elk Management Group

[Article by Melissa Grant]

I grew up in Bellevue where wildlife sightings were a pretty rare occurrence. So, when I moved to North Bend in 2006, I was thrilled to see all the critters around town and in my back yard. However, the sighting that have always impressed me the most are the elk herd.

I’ll never get tired to seeing them all around town. I had heard about the Upper Snoqualmie Valley Elk Management Group over the years, but never really knew what their purpose is in the Valley. Recently many commented on social media that the group’s only purpose is hunt elk, but was that true?

I took a look at the their webpage and found this as their stated purpose:

“The goal of the Elk Research and Management Committee is to conduct and facilitate basic research on the Snoqualmie Valley elk herd. The scientific data is then shared with state and local agencies to help them develop and maintain a sustainable and adaptable long-term elk management plan. This management plan may include things like habitat development, harvest quotas, and damage hunts that help minimize property damage and safety concerns with local residents.”

Still how do they accomplish those goals and what do they do for the Elk in the area? I decided to ask the President of the group, Scott Phelps, to talk to me about the group. He was eager to chat and explain what the group does.

First, a little history on our elk population. Elk that were indigenous to the area were Roosevelt elk. They were hunted to extinction by our early settlers by the early 1900’s. Now they occur in the Coast Range, the Olympic Range and other areas west of Interstate 5, with the largest population being in Olympic National Park and numbering around 5,000.

In 1913 the Seattle Elk Club paid for and engineered the introduction of Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone Park in Montana. They exploded in population, but hit hard times after World War II – leaving the Valley without elk. (Read the whole story here.) Fortunately, a few animals survived and by the early 1990’s the Snoqualmie Valley was again seeing elk.

By 2008 our elk population had exploded and was becoming a local nuisance. The Department of Fish and Wildlife was getting many calls about property damage. So in cooperation with Valley hunting and timber interests, the Elk Management Group was formed.

So what exactly has the group done to help the elk population? Lots it turns out – and almost none of it has to do with the group hunting elk. In fact, volunteers who help track the elk must sign waivers not hunt in the area for two years after finishing their work with the group.

There are an estimated 420 to 450 elk at any given time in the Upper Snoqualmie Valley. The management group takes a census each year between March and April to confirm those numbers. Volunteers go out once a day, usually in the mornings, to count elk. They work with a wildlife biologist to collar elk during this time to help track their movement and report their findings to the divisional wildlife department. These numbers help fish and wildlife decide the number of tags issued during hunting season, as well as help with research and education. The census and collaring must be done by early spring to avoid stressing pregnant cows soon before they are due to give birth.

In addition to the elk census, the group has put in approximately 1,000 volunteer hour to repair an elk fence that runs from exit 27 to exit 31 along I-90. The fence was installed in the 1970’s, but fell into disrepair. According to Elk Management Research Committee Chair Harold Erland, in 2009 39 elk were killed on the highways of the Snoqualmie Valley, most of those between the two exits. In 2011 the elk management group started work on the fencing and by 2012 the fatality number dropped to virtually zero – although elk do still get hit in other areas.

Harold added, “The DOT is working on a project that would get fences all the way to exit 38 and when that happens, the freeways will be much safer.” If an animal does get hit in the area, the teeth of collared animals are sometimes collected, adding to research and tracking information given to divisional wildlife.

The elk management group also created a habitat of 70 plus acres of early seral stage habitat in the Middle Fork drainage called the CCC Flats Passive Elk Habitat Enhancement Area. It was created because these outskirt areas had a poorer habitat than areas within the Valley – and for economic and safety reasons, it is better for the elk to stay away from populated areas. The Enhancement Area was seeded and cleared to make it a place that elk would want to go to and stay – and keep them away from areas where they could do damage or be damaged themselves.

If you do have elk related damage please call or email the Department of Fish and Wildlife district office in Mill Creek by phone at 425-775-1311 or by email at teammillcreek@dfw.wa.gov

If you would like to support the Elk Management group or hear more about what they do, consider going to their fundraiser BBQ on April 29th. There will be live music, BBQ Elk burgers and beer & wine. You can register HERE for tickets.

I’ve got mine so I’ll see you there!

Snoqualmie Valley Elk herd. Photo: Don Detrick

 

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