20 years later, Southeast elk population maintaining

Posted: Friday, February 05, 2010

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Rich Lowell / For The Juneau Empire
Rich Lowell / For The Juneau Empire

And then try five more times. That's exactly what it took to introduce elk to Southeast Alaska.

In 1985, the Alaska Legislature passed a bill directing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to transplant between 30 and 150 Roosevelt elk to a "suitable location" in Southeast Alaska within three years.

Four islands in the region - Zarembo, Etolin, Prince of Wales and Kuiu - were investigated in an ADF&G feasibility study, and Etolin Island was found to be the most suitable for elk.

Prior to the Alaska Legislature's directive in 1985, there had been six unsuccessful attempts to transplant elk in the area. The Etolin Island elk, however, have been checked up on periodically during the last 20 years by way of radio telemetry and visual collars.

"In 1987, a total of 50 elk (33 Roosevelt and 17 Rocky Mountain) were obtained from Oregon in exchange for 15 mountain goats captured in Misty Fjords," said Richard Lowell, wildlife biologist for the ADF&G in Petersburg. "The elk were transported from Oregon to Alaska by way of truck and ferry before being barged to two release sites on Etolin Island."

Lowell said half the transplanted elk died as a result of predation and accidents, but the population eventually stabilized and began to grow. In fact, several elk swam to Zarembo Island, where a small population now exists.

He also said despite numerous anecdotal reports of elk sightings on other Southeast islands and portions of the mainland, the presence of elk in locations other than Etolin, Zarembo and the associated smaller islands has yet to be confirmed.

The success of the transplant has led to discussion about if elk should be introduced to other Southeast areas. Biologists, however, were concerned about the effect that might have on Sitka black-tailed deer populations, whether it be competition for food or transmission of disease between the two species. Opposition from the Board of Game and people who lived near some of the proposed transplant areas nixed those plans.

"Although deer and elk populations on Etolin and Zarembo Island are currently healthy, the high degree of dietary overlap and browse pressure elk exert on winter range do give cause for long-term population concerns," Lowell said. "Elk may affect deer populations directly through physical displacement, indirectly by competition for food resources, or by altering predator-prey dynamics.

"One potential cost of increased elk numbers could be a reduction in deer numbers. Deer hunting opportunities could be reduced if elk out-compete deer during severe winters, resulting in fewer deer due to starvation or high predation rates."

As the herd stabilized, elk hunting in Southeast Alaska became a new opportunity.

"By the mid-1990s, the elk population was estimated between 100-150 animals, at which time it was determined that the herd could withstand a limited bulls-only hunt," Lowell said. "In 1996, the Board of Game approved the first elk hunting season in Southeast Alaska. In 1997, the first drawing permit hunt was held ... for a bulls-only hunt during the month of October."

Lowell said a total of eight bull elk were harvested that year, and since 1997 elk harvest has ranged from 1-19 bulls annually, with a total of 125 bull elk having been taken to date, including 92 from Etolin and 33 from Zarembo.

Today, the elk population in Southeast Alaska is considered healthy, though exact numbers are not available for various reasons.

Lowell said the rugged terrain and densely forested environment in Southeast Alaska precludes accurate aerial count of the elk population. Late-winter and early-spring flyovers associated with recent elk capture and radio collaring efforts, along with anecdotal observations by hunters and pilots, suggest that elk numbers have remained stable in traditional wintering areas.

"However, in 2008, concerns about low population numbers and low bull-cow ratios prompted the department to announce the closure of elk hunting on the Zarembo Island portion of the hunt area," Lowell said. "Based on late-winter and early-spring overflights, elk population estimates for Zarembo Island have been revised downward.

"The department now suspects there are only about 30-40 elk on Zarembo and the season will remain closed until the population increases."

Lowell said in recent years, elk harvest numbers have been roughly half of its preceding 10-year average. He anticipates the 2010 harvest will remain low.

He said most Etolin Island elk are taken during the three established drawing permit hunts in September and October. The application period for elk-hunting permits expired on Dec. 31, 2009, and drawing results will be announced by late March.

"In recent years, ADF&G has offered a late-November registration permit hunt for elk, during which one or two elk are typically taken," Lowell said. "A decision about whether or not to proceed with a scheduled registration elk hunt next November will be withheld until an assessment can be made of the harvest results from the 2010 drawing hunts."

• Matthew Tynan can be reached at matthew.tynan@juneauempire.com or by phone at 523-2267.

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