Group completes Snoqualmie Valley elk count
May 1, 2013
By Michele Mihalovich
Mist hovered over a pond at Mountain Meadows in North Bend as Michael Walter looked through binoculars and counted 48 elk.
Four of them had collars around their necks, which made the receiver sitting on the dash of his Jeep beep and blip like crazy. Walter said there are four different types of beeps, which can tell an elk counter whether an elk is standing, lying down, lowering their heads to eat — and even if an animal is dead.
The herd was definitely alive, barely paying attention to the Jeep as they munched dew-covered grass.
Walter, at 6 a.m. April 12, met up with nine other Snoqualmie Valley Elk Management Group volunteers at QFC to come up with a game plan for the day’s count.
They usually break up into pairs and head out to count on certain routes. One is the Mount Si Road route, the others are Meadowbrook, Cedar Falls, the Uplands, and Walker’s route that day, called the 428th, which pretty much follows the middle fork of the Snoqualmie River.
Harold Erland, a wildlife research biologist and vice president of the elk group, said this is the third year the management group has counted elk in the Snoqualmie Valley.
It’s done during the first three weeks in April so as to not disturb the females, who are generally hitting their third trimester in late April and typically give birth in May and June, Walker said.
Erland said the count is necessary to come up with a new management plan for the elk.
He said the last time the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department released the North Rainier Elk Herd Plan was in 2007.
The Snoqualmie Valley elk herd is one of 10 that make up the North Rainier herd and Erland said he hopes a new plan will be released in 2014.
Walter said Erland is the one who asked him to help with the annual counts and he has no regrets, despite the early hour.
Walter, a northern New York state transplant, works at home integrating computers for a living and sets his own hours, which allows him the freedom to drive around North Bend’s rural back roads looking for elk.
He said he enjoys the elk counts, driving around year after year and seeing the changes to the area.
Walter spouted off tidbits of information he’d learned over the years about the elk — their mating and breeding habits, propensity to eat expensive plants homeowners try to grow, antlers growing and falling off, how transient elk are a bit more skittish than the local herd population, the herd’s relatively small grazing areas and how the management group traps elk in order to study them and put on collars.
“We use apples,” he said. “An elk will do anything for apples.”
But, an elk counter can’t help but see other wildlife while out in the wilds near the river. He spotted two mountain goats April 12, along with a bunny.
“We don’t count those,” he joked.
At the end of the count at about 8 a.m., Walter had counted 65 elk altogether, including four “bachelor” bucks near Ernie’s Grove, but, he said, “Every now and again, you come up with a zero.”
Lynn Brechtel also helped out with the elk count April 12. She and another woman drove the Mount Si Road route and counted 60 elk.
She moved to North Bend from the San Francisco Bay area a year and a half ago and figured participating in an elk count would be a good way to learn about the flora and fauna of the area.
“Each time I go out, I learn more about the Valley — the forestry, animals, predators in the area, plus the people,” Brechtel said.
But, the elk’s personality is what will keep bringing her back.
“They are obviously intelligent and have senses of humor,” Brechtel said, recounting a group of elk playing king-of-the-hill on top of a manure pile at a horse ranch.
After 12 days of counting elk, the tally sheets are turned over to Erland, who turns them over to a number cruncher.
Erland said the numbers aren’t ready yet, but it looks like the Snoqualmie Valley may have about 500 elk.
A 2010 draft of the North Rainier Elk Herd Plan indicates that the Valley can probably support 250 elk. But, as Erland put it, obviously this area can support more because “we’re already seeing that.”
The elk count in 2011 and 2012 saw about 430 elk each of those years. Erland said the fact that elk can forage during all four seasons in the Valley is probably why the area can support such a large herd.
Nonetheless, he looks forward to seeing the 2014 management plan now that hard numbers, and not estimates, are being provided to the state’s fish and wildlife department.
Michele Mihalovich: 392-6434, ext. 246, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.snovalleystar.com.