An elk sticks its tongue out as it grazes in a field in Packwood.

Low cow numbers and falling survival rates among calves continue to plague Yakima’s elk herd and cause significant decreases in hunting opportunities.

Local Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Jeff Bernatowicz said no studies have been done on area calves and researchers don’t know why their survival numbers are historically low. Until that trend reverses, hunters must pay the price with fewer permits available and shortened seasons for archers.

“The only factor we can control is antlerless harvest,” Bernatowicz said in an email. “If we continue to harvest equal to more cows than are recruited into the population, it will never rebound.”

Antlerless harvest from hunters with general and special permits totaled 594 a year ago, 160 fewer than the year before and among the lowest in modern history. Archery hunters killed 47 percent of the district’s elk last season, so in an effort to lower that number their early general season for antlerless won’t begin until Sept. 14 in many areas and will last only five days, a week shorter than most of the state.

Fewer calves means fewer yearling bulls, causing the wildlife department to reduce its bull allocations throughout the region for the second straight year. During that time, the number of available permits has fallen by about 70 percent.

The most significant drops in bull allocations include from 90 to 10 in Peaches Ridge north of Highway 410 and from 80 to five in Goose Prairie near Bumping Lake. Those allocations are divided by user groups, then divided again by recent success rates for each group to determine how many permits are given out, Bernatowicz said.

The wildlife department’s deer and elk section manager, Brock Hoenes, said statewide applications for quality hunts and bull elk increased by about five percent. But in Yakima’s region, applicants went down by about six percent to 27,000, and the department heard more from hunters frustrated by their lack of opportunity.

“The Yakima herd has always been one of the top two or three herds in the state in terms of size, and that’s still the case,” Hoenes said. “We felt like given recent trends and recruitment, we needed to pull back.”

Winter surveys estimated a population of 8,231 elk, slightly fewer than last year’s less reliable surveys during a mild winter at lower elevations and well below the objective of 9,500. The region’s smaller Colockum herd north of Ellensburg declined as well, and is now estimated at 4,133 elk.

The odds of success remain low after only five percent of more than 21,000 hunters managed to harvest an elk during the general season over the past three years, including just three percent of hunters during modern firearm and muzzleloader seasons. During that same period, elk hunters statewide posted a success rate of more than eight percent.

In his annual hunting prospects on the department’s website, Bernatowicz recommended going far off the beaten path for a better chance at finding elk. He also noted the last two or three days of the modern firearm season for spike bulls from Oct. 26 to Nov. 3 can often be less crowded after many hunters head home and said archery hunters should see double the success of others.

Hoenes noted Yakima’s elk harvest depends more on variations in weather than other parts of the state. Although the herd should be past the negative effects of a serious drought in 2015 and some harsh winters that followed, it’s not clear when calf recruitment will pick up again to provide a much-needed boost for the animals and hunters alike.

“It’s been kind of a mild summer for you guys and a little bit of precipitation,” Hoenes said. “I think this is going to be a good year for antler development.”

Bernatowicz noted hunters could also see negative effects from a pair of factors outside their control. Access to the Yakima Training Center will be limited this fall by heavy training activity, and unofficial reports from one tribe show total tribal harvest may be exceeding the number of new branched bulls in the herd, according to the wildlife department.

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