Technical Report

Elk Ecology and Management Perspectives at Mount Rainier National Park
William P, Bradley, Chas. H. Driver


A major objective of the Mount Rainier elk study was to develop potential management alternatives based on scientific research and appraisal of the elk situation in Mount Rainier National Park. The purpose of this emphasis was to integrate research findings into the decision making process of the park management staff and provide administrators with the knowledge of the management options available to them. It was one thing to assess the impact of a large introduced ungulate on a natural system and quite another to decide on an appropriate management strategy.

The Role of the Mount Rainier Deer and Elk Management Coordinating Committee

This committee, as previously noted, was originally formed in 1968 as a forum in response to damage complaints by the NPS. An inter-agency agreement was drawn up and signed, followed by much discussion of the "elk problem." It was this inter-agency committee that had outlined the need for research input before a management decision could be made. Attendance and interest in the committee functions increased as the research data was reviewed. Additional working group meetings of field biologists were formed from the parent committee in 1974. This group planned the collection of field data during the fall hunting seasons and coordinated these efforts. By 1977, the committee meeting was attended by US Forest Service personnel from three different national forests, Game Department personnel from two f districts and the Olympia main office, NPS personnel from Mount Rainier National Park and the Regional Office, University of Washington biologists and representatives from public sportsmen's organizations--a total of over 60 people.

The main purpose of these meetings was to publicly review the results of the NPS research effort conducted by the University of Washington. As the results were shared, criticisms and new ideas were aired, and deficiencies were pointed out. The committee proved to be an extremely effective vehicle for presenting information, exchanging ideas and promoting management interests.

The Management Alternatives

In 1976, University of Washington personnel submitted a detailed report of five management alternatives available to the NPS to control the Mount Rainier elk population. These five alternatives were:

  1. No action on the part of the National Park Service.
  2. Exclusion of elk from the park by fencing.
  3. Physical manipulation of elk in areas of concentration.
  4. Direct reduction by shooting of elk herds within the park.
  5. Control of number of elk through sport hunting.

The first four alternatives were considered either too expensive or impractical. The fifth alternative, sport hunting (which is not allowed within national parks), had tremendous potential to regulate and control an elk herd within reasonable limits. Research had already Indicated that at some point in virtually every winter the majority of the Mount Rainier elk herd must migrate outside the park boundaries to find suitable winter range. This fact made portions of the herd available to hunters outside the park, the size of the portion being dependent on the severity and earliness of the winter.

The major advantage of this management alternative was that it allowed potential control of the population through an established social tradition, thus eliminating an adverse public reaction. Sport hunting exerts a control function that is independent of the quality of the winter range in that, if the quality and availability of the winter range unexpectedly increases due to logging or wild fire, the only adjustment necessary is to increase the harvest to maintain an established base population. This was of critical value due to the lack of land management control exercised by the Park Service for the winter range.

The major disadvantage to this alternative was that the decision making body controlling sport hunting lies outside NPS administration-in the Washington State Department of Game. However, this agency, through its participation in the inter-agency elk management committee, had already demonstrated that it was cognizant of the elk situation within the park and was willing to work out a management solution to alleviate the problem.

The Sport Hunting Proposal and its Results

Prior to 1976, the Washington State Game Department hunting unit boundaries were too large to manage for a specific reduction in the Mount Rainier elk herd. In order for hunting to be an effective management tool around the periphery of the park, changes were in order. Small management units would have to be created that would primarily affect only the desired target population. A special or late season hunt would have to be instigated, which would compensate for the erratic weather patterns and ensure the presence of elk in the management units at the desired time. The force of mortality would have to be concentrated on the reproductive segment of the herd, i.e., females, until the desired level of population reduction would be achieved.

The sport hunting management alternative was proposed before the elk management committee during their 1976 winter meeting. Changes in the management units were proposed (Figure 7). These small units were selected to affect only specific target populations and were based on the movement and migration studies of marked elk. Adjacent elk herds, such as the Goat Rocks herd in the south unit and the Clearwater River herd in the north unit, would not be affected. This proposal was well received and action was initiated at an earlier date than anticipated. The Washington State Game Department structured a special late season antlerless-only elk hunt in the recommended area in the south herd unit, known as the Backbone Unit, and the first hunt was held on an experimental basis in December, 1976.

Figure 7. Proposed boundary changes in State Game Department hunting units in the upper White River drainage (above) and the upper Cowlitz River drainage (below). These changes would allow late season controlled hunting specifically targeting Mount Rainier elk.

The results of the first four years of this special late-season hunt may be seen In Table 1. The first hunt was conducted during the driest winter on record and the typical weather-influenced migration of park elk did not occur until well after the special season closed. This resulted in only five female elk being harvested during this hunt. These results were disappointing at first; however, they proved to be a fortuitous circumstance. Local public disapproval was running at a high level prior to the 1976 hunt. The low percentage harvest did much to alleviate the public's fears that the special hunt would "wipe the elk out," or decimate resident elk herds outside the park.

TABLE 1 Results of late season anterless-only Backbone Unit elk hunt in the Mount Rainier south herd area, 1976-79.

of Permits
Number of
Elk Harvested
Success Rate


An excellent harvest has been obtained in the three years subsequent to that first hunt. The Backbone Unit hunt has turned out to be one of the most successful and popular late season control hunts ever structured by the Washington Department of Game. Marked elk have appeared among the harvested elk in each year, and their presence contributes to the general public's feeling that they were, indeed, harvesting park elk. The special late season hunt has also effectively checked the rate of increase in the south Rainier herd (Hanley et al. 1979).

Increased Activity by Other Agencies

The shared results of the NPS research on the Mount Rainier elk herds also stimulated other agencies to participate in active data gathering. In particular, the patterns of herd movement in the less intensively studied north herd conflicted with previous theories of movement in this drainage. The single NPS elk trap on the White River was not sufficient to obtain an overall picture of movement within the entire north herd area. This fact prompted the US Forest Service and the Washington State Game Department, in cooperation with the Park Service, to intensify the elk marking program in this drainage. Three new elk traps were constructed outside park boundaries and an active elk tagging program was initiated. The US Forest Service also initiated its own aerial census program to monitor elk marked in the new trapping program. The Washington State Game Department has conducted a 100 percent sample of all special season elk hunters since the inception of the hunt. The Department's efforts have provided the needed information with which to evaluate the new management activity.

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Last Updated: Monday, 01-Dec-2003 20:10:54
Author: Natural & Cultural Resources Division

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