Nooksack Elk Herd Continues To Grow

New figures show that the Nooksack elk herd of Whatcom and Skagit Counties continues to grow.

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commissions estimates the population at around 800 to 850, based on recent helicopter surveys.

That’s up from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s March-April 2010 estimate of 770, and well above where it was in 2002 — just 300 animals.

The herd peaked in 1984 when it numbered 1,700, but declining habitat as well as higher road densities suppressed it.

Over the past decade, WDFW, the Point Elliott Treaty tribes and others have been working to rebuild it, including bringing in 98 elk from the Mt. St. Helens area and improving forage plots.

The growth has spurred new hunting opportunities that began in 2007 with non-tribal and tribal hunters splitting a total of 30 special permits for bulls. This year there are 40 available, although you’ll need at least 8 if not more points built up if you want to have any chance at pulling a tag.

MIKE LEE'S MONSTER 2010 NOOKSACK BULL. (MIKE LEE)

However, there have also been damage complaints from farmers in the Acme and Birdsview areas, and in late 2009, there was a distasteful, though legal, incident where bowhunters surrounded a herd next to Highway 20.

By at least two measures, the Nooksack is the healthiest on the west side of the Cascades.

According to researchers John and Rachel Cook, who found that elk in Western Washington and Western Oregon tend to have higher body fat and pregnancy rates the further north you go in the Cascades, the Nooksack herd came in at 13 percent and 95 percent, respectively.

Those figures drop sharply as you head towards the coast. Animals around Forks, Wash., and in the Willapa Hills average just 6 percent body fat while pregnancy rates in the Siuslaw and Wynoochee Basins were only 50 and 53 percent.

It’s unclear exactly why that is, but new modeling suggests that there’s just more good grits in the North Cascades than in coastal areas of both states.

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