By Eric Barker

The Lewiston Tribune

Elk hunters in southeastern Washington have something to be happy about.

Recent surveys in the Blue Mountains showed the elk population there with healthy levels of spikes and mature bulls.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently completed aerial surveys of the Blues and estimated an elk population of 5,774.

“The number is 500 to 600 higher than we have experienced the past few years,” said Paul Wik, the department’s district wildlife biologist stationed at Clarkston.

The count, as it does every year, likely includes 500 or so elk that spend the summer and fall in Oregon. Wik said because of the terrain that borders Oregon, the flights don’t stick strictly to state lines.

Surveyors didn’t count as many bulls this year but the survey model the department uses adjusted the number upward. That is because many animals were seen in timber.

Wik said lower than normal snow levels and the presence of shed hunters may have compelled elk to seek cover.

Because the model predicted healthy numbers of young elk and mature bulls, Wik said that should translate into good opportunity for hunters next fall seeking spikes and those after branch antlered bulls. In Washington, hunters must be drawn in a lottery to hunt mature bulls with branching antlers.

Wik said much of the habitat is in good condition, especially in places that burned in 2005 and 2006. But he added there are places that have become dense and overgrown.

Washington conducts its elk surveys in the Blue Mountains during green-up when elk can easily be seen grazing on the fresh growth. Idaho does its surveys during the winter, when snow makes the animals easier to spot whether they are on open south-facing slopes or in timber.

Biologists for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Clearwater Region were largely stymied in their efforts to count elk in the Elk City Zone last winter. When it did start snowing in February, the storms were frequent and kept aircraft grounded. By the time the weather cleared, he said, it was too lake to conduct the counts.

Biologists were able to get in one day of flying in Unit 15. Koehler said they recorded a calf-to-cow ratio 22 calves for every 100 cows.