The search for edible vegetation, more than the disturbance by people driving snowmobiles and trucks, is the primary force driving the late-winter movements of the Colockum elk herd.
That’s according to the just-released findings of a 31/2-year study of the 4,500 Colockum elk, during which the herd’s state-managed wintering range was closed to motor vehicles from February-April.
State wildlife officials are expected to extend that closure on the 44,000-acre, heavily roaded portion of the Whisky Dick and Quilomene wildlife areas through this spring as well.
One reason is the spring closure is consistent with the timing of other wildlife-area closures. There also is the fact that the past three spring closures coincided with decreases in the Colockum animals’ often expensive forays onto neighboring agricultural land.
In many elk-populated areas in Yakima County, winter feeding programs and elk fences help minimize the issue of elk foraging on private farmlands. The Colockum – northeast of the Kittitas Valley – with no winter-feeding effort and no elk fences, poses an entirely different set of management issues.
“The elk have unrestricted access to a wide-ranging landscape,” state Department of Fish and Wildlife elk expert Scott McCorquodale said. “They can go where the want to go.”
Fewer elk have ventured onto private lands neighboring the closure area during the past three winters.
Not surprisingly, most of those landowners have supported the closure.
But many Kittitas County recreational users of the area have not, and that divide was evident during a recent presentation of the study results in Ellensburg.
Most audience questions revolved around the closure.
One spectator suggested the elk study was part of “some predetermined mission to close roads in the Colockum.”
The Colockum herd study began in the winter of 2008-09 and involved putting radio collars on 109 elk, some for one winter and others for repeat winters.