Cougars decimate elk calves in Washington state

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Few elk in southeastern Washington’s Blue Mountains survive their first year, prompting county commissioners to ask the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to extend the cougar season and protect a herd of elk in trouble.

According to WDFW communications manager Staci Lehman, only nine of the 125 elk calves fitted with radio tracking collars in the spring are still alive today. Lehman tells F&S that elk calf mortality from predation is expected and natural, and that the extent of mortality can vary due to several factors. The 114 elk collars recovered by the agency were not all from animals killed by predators. Some collars have failed and some calves (estimated at 7) have lost their collars, Lehman says. Yet predators cause most calf deaths, with cougars being particularly good at this task.

“During our work assessing Blue Mountains elk, we documented 77 ring-necked elk mortalities caused by carnivores; 54 of them were attributed to cougar predation,” Lehman says. “These results raise concerns about the ability of the Blue Mountains elk herd to meet the management objective at the elk population level.”

In their petition to WDFW, Asotin County Commissioners Chris Seubert, Brian Shinn and Chuck Whitman wrote, “We share a common concern with our constituents and were shocked by the latest calf mortality study. elk. Coupled with other elk mortality data, we have serious concerns about the apparent inadequacy of elk and elk protection to date. Garfield County commissioners also requested an extension to “allow as many cougars as possible to be removed from our area.”

The Blue Mountains elk herd is one of 10 identified in Washington State. Its population appears to have peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s at around 6,500 elk, but then began to decline in the late 1980s. The herd management plan calls for maintaining the population at around 5,500 animals, but the Lewiston Tribune reports an estimated current population of only 3,600 animals.

The Politics of Predator Management in Washington

Cougar management, and predator management in general, has been controversial in the state and is believed to be one of the reasons a newly appointed member of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission resigned last month. Fred Koontz, appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee for a term that will expire Dec. 31, 2026, resigned in December, to the apparent delight of hunters who believed in his nomination, as well as that of Lorna Smith, another member of the commission perceived as generally unfavorable to hunting interests, distracted the council from the North American model of wildlife conservation.

In 2015, Governor Inslee reversed a WDFW decision to increase the cougar harvest to 17–21% of the estimated cougar population in parts of eastern Washington where wolves occur. His emergency order restored cougar harvest rates to 12-16% statewide.

In November, the commission also failed to approve a spring 2022 bear hunting season, despite state wildlife biologists calling for the hunt to continue. Anti-hunting groups pushed hard for the spring ban. Koontz and Smith voted against the hunt. Koontz also suggested that the Blue Mountains elk herd management goal of 5,500 was too high and recommended other management actions beyond increased short-term targeting of calf-eating predators. However, the deep reductions already implemented in the availability of cow tags for hunters do not appear to have helped.

WDFW will review petitions and monitor the herd

A Blue Mountains cougar research project that ended in 2013 found densities of 3.02 mature cats per 38.6 square miles. The rest of the state averaged 1.5 to 1.7 adult cougars on the same stretch of land. Analysis of kill sites where radio collars were recovered, as reported in early December, indicated that in addition to the 54 calves killed by cougars, nine were killed by bears, three by coyotes, two by wolves and one by a bobcat. Four calves were killed by bears or cougars (though not unequivocally one or the other), and another four by an unknown predator.

While improving habitat is part of the equation when it comes to meeting elk population goals, county commissioners who hope increased pressure on mountain lions could provide a better chance next year’s calves.

Cougar season is open statewide from September 1 through December 31, with the end of the season running from January 1 through April 30. “During the end of the season, hunting units remain open until their designated harvest guideline is reached,” says Lehman. “The three cougar hunting units in the Blue Mountains have not reached their harvest guideline and are open late in the season. Eight adult cougars were captured in these units early in the season. A similar cougar harvest pattern in all three cougar hunting units occurred last year. A total of 18 to 24 cats can be killed in the Blues at the start and end of the season. “The department continues to monitor elk calf survival and is producing an evaluation of the results, which will identify management strategies aimed at rebuilding the Blue Mountains elk population,” Lehman said.

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