Elk NetworkDedication to St. Helens Elk Herd Runs Deep

Volunteer News | August 20, 2012

Dedication to St. Helens Elk Herd Runs Deep

By Dan Howell, Chapter Chair, Loowit Chapter

The eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 altered tens of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat. Hillsides previously carpeted with mixed stands of conifers, alders, maple and brush became a rolling moonscape of ash and downed trees. The Toutle River Valley, once home to critical fish habitat and vital elk winter range, was transformed into a giant mudflow. Elk and other wildlife far enough away to survive the blast found the area’s rich habitat had become a barren landscape. 

Soon after the eruption, RMEF facilitated a property exchange along the Toutle River Valley so that the valley floor itself would be owned and managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) as the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area. Efforts began almost immediately to fertilize and seed the area with grasses, and elk numbers boomed. As the forest matured, though, elk and other wildlife struggled to find enough to eat. RMEF began providing funds and volunteer power in an effort to enhance habitat within the “mudflow” for the St. Helen’s elk herd and other wildlife.

About 10 years ago, Washington’s new RMEF State Leadership Team took it a step further by appointing a member to work directly with the DFW wildlife manager to solicit and coordinate volunteer efforts to plant deciduous trees, apply fertilizer/ lime and grass seed, perform annual elk mortality counts and other activities. The rehabilitation of this area is of prime importance to the Mount St Helens elk herd. During hard winters upwards of 700 elk winter in the valley, and for many years the animals exhausted the available forage before winter’s end. Coordinated efforts by RMEF volunteers and others have vastly improved wildlife habitat over the past decade, but much more work remains. Fortunately, RMEF volunteers are always up for more. 

For example, this past March a group of RMEF volunteers gathered at the mudflow to plant trees. It rained buckets that day, yet volunteers Mike Labarre, BJ Labarre and John Wallace, along with a couple of DFW employees, still managed to plant more than 2,000 willow cuttings near the river. The project complemented past years’ efforts to plant willows, alders, dogwoods and conifers for cover, forage and stream stabilization. Volunteers have also constructed log fortifications in the past to help stabilize streambanks to protect grassy meadows from erosion.           

In late April, a group of more than 20 volunteers—most of them from RMEF—helped DFW personnel survey the mudflow area for winter-killed elk. DFW conducts the survey in the same locations each year to create an index of winter loss for the North Toutle Valley and the wildlife area. This year’s count tallied 47 elk carcasses, which were partially autopsied to determine their condition at death. To do this, volunteers must cut the femur and assess the condition of the bone marrow to determine how malnourished the elk was. This can be a smelly job, depending on how long the elk has been dead. Late winter snow is probably the main factor that contributed to this year’s higher-than-average number.
In May, RMEF Chairman’s Award winner Rick Barlin and eight other RMEF volunteers spent a day on the mudflow wrestling stubborn Scotch broom out of the ground to create several 7-foot-wide trails within a 20-acre patch. Some members of the group used special “weed wrenches” to pry out the larger plants. The others resorted to using their hands and strong backs. Scotch broom is an invasive shrub that takes over an area and screens out any other plants. Creating the trails will allow DFW personnel easier access for spraying the rest of the patch with herbicides, eventually killing the plant and creating useable habitat for elk. Removing and spraying Scotch broom is part of a multi-year effort to eradicate the plant which threatens to take over the area.

And, the work isn’t done yet for 2012. In July and August, RMEF volunteers will participate in two invasive plant surveys on the mudflow to identify areas that need to be sprayed, as well as assess the effectiveness of past spraying efforts. All of these contributions greatly enhance the area for wildlife and give members the satisfaction of helping the resource through their dedication and hard work.