April 22–When the 125 square miles scorched during last summer’s Colockum Tarps fire was prime winter-range elk habitat in eastern Kittitas County and the southern tip of Chelan County, hunters and wildlife officials naturally wondered what negative impact the blaze would have upon the Colockum elk herd.
The answer, apparently, is not much.
If anything, the herd is too resilient and populous for its own good — so much so, in fact, that state wildlife officials are nearly tripling the number of Colockum antlerless special permits available to hunters.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would like to maintain the herd’s population at around 4,500 elk. For the past couple of years, though, the herd has numbered upwards of 5,500, and this spring’s surveys — even coming on the heels of that 80,000-acre wildfire — were higher still.
“Fire is a potential short-term negative but a long-term positive” for wildlife habitat, said Scott McCorquodale, the state’s Yakima-based deer and elk specialist.
In more open areas, grasses and shrubs will grow back following a wildfire, while in more heavily forested areas the canopy of layered branches will be removed or thinned, allowing for more ground-level forage.
“There’s usually a lag of about a year before you start seeing that regeneration,” McCorquodale said, adding that autumn rain and a mild winter will speed up the process.
“We did have some forage growth,” McCorquodale said. “After the (August 2012) Taylor Bridge Fire, there was a lot of concern about what that would mean for deer that coming winter, and as it turned out the deer did fine. The fire effect was kind of a mosaic and there was enough regrowth that they did pretty well.
“It’s basically been the same thing with the Tarps Fire. There has been some regenerative growth, though not as much as we’ll see in a year or two. The fire on the winter range tended to run up and down the drainage bottoms where there was more trees, but the more open areas — what people really think about when they think about the Colockum — the fire didn’t do as much damage as you might think.”
The 6,018 elk counted in this year’s late-winter survey — “probably more than we expected to see,” McCorquodale said — were some 300 more than the previous year’s count. That number being 1,500 above WDFW management objectives will mean more opportunities this fall for Colockum elk hunters, who not that long ago faced diminishing prospects.
Twenty years ago, all of the WDFW’s Region 3 — encompassing Kittitas, Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties — all branch-antler bull hunting became permit-only except in Game Management Units (GMUS) 372 (Rattlesnake Hills) and 373 (Horse Heaven) in Benton County. A decade later, the general-season archery elk season was eliminated in the Colockum, and permit hunts in generally were largely eliminated. And in 2009 the Naneum, Quilomene and Teanaway GMUs — constituting the bulk of the Colockum herd’s range — went to true-spike only.
This year, in addition to the spike-only hunts available with the elk license, hunters can also apply to be drawn for one of 1,016 antlerless special permits on the Colockum — a significant jump from the 374 available a year ago.
Opportunity in the Yakima elk herd, numbering just under 10,000 elk, will also increase, though not nearly as dramatically.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission also approved higher permit levels for the Yakima herd — another 130 any-bull and an additional 1,440 antlerless permits, the latter constituting a bump of more than 50 percent.
While any boost in any-bull permits, even just 130 more, will be a big attraction for hunters dreaming of a trophy branch-antlered bull, simply being drawn for a special permit doesn’t insure success.
“A hundred and 30 additional (permits) for bulls is a pretty small thing,” McCorquodale said, “when you’re talking about an elk herd of something around 10,000 elk that stretches from the crest of the Cascades to the Columbia River.”
The same stretch of mild winters that aided the recent growth of the Yakima and Coluckum elk herds has also bolstered deer and elk populations elsewhere in the state.
The only decrease in elk special permits involved the Mount St. Helens herd, which after far outnumbering available forage in the mid-2000s was subjected to six straight years of elevated permit levels.
This year, with the herd’s population now back within management objectives, the commission approved the WDFW’s requested reduction of 400 permits.