Elk herd starving on Mount St. Helens

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by By GRANT McOMIE for KGW.com

KING5.com

Posted on May 17, 2010 at 2:58 PM

Mount St Helens has long been a drawing card for visitors who enjoy the volcano's majestic beauty.

But in recent years, a tragic scene of wildlife starvation has clouded the view.

It's been a struggle to keep elk alive during winter on a state-managed wildlife refuge called the Loowit Wildlife Unit inside the Mount St Helens Wildlife Area.

One man is trying to save as many animals as he can from a terrible fate.

Mark Smith never dreamed he would have so many neighbors show up on his Toutle River property for lunch.

Smith's acreage is located in the shadow of Mt St Helens and a lingering winter hasn't left him much choice but to feed the eighty or so hungry elk that show up each day.

He began feeding the elk last December and has he placed flakes of the hay out on the ground he noted: "We call it a supplemental feeding because we try to get 4-6 pounds of protein to each animal a day. I wouldn't do this if I felt there was a choice. For me, there simply isn't one."

Wildlife starvation has been a fact of the "wild"-life near Mt St Helens for years.

But in 2006, it was also a terribly slow death for scores of majestic elk that starved on the Loowit Unit of the Mt St Helens Wildlife Area.

Smith said it was a winter he'll never forget because the grisly scene changed his mind about feeding wildlife forever.

He believes that the state should do the same on the refuge as he does on his own property: feed elk in winter to prevent them from starving: "People want to see animals, they want to learn about them and if you give that opportunity, especially along this area where we have such an attraction, I think it could be a greater benefit. In fact, the benefits from that program - as they have found out at Jewell - strongly outweigh the problems."

The Jewell Wildlife Area in Oregon's Clatsop County is home to nearly 200 elk in the winter. It's a place where feeding has been a daily routine for nearly forty years.

In fact, visitors can go along and lend a hand, enjoy close up views to the massive animals and learn a valuable lesson about wildlife too.

Unlike the Loowit Refuge at Mt St Helens, the elk at Jewell are fed to prevent damage on neighboring properties; that is if they weren't on the refuge, they'd be eating on neighboring private properties."

Still, one thing is certain according to Brian Swearingen, the Jewell Wildlife Area manager, when you provide adequate habitat the elk respond and the people respond too.

"It's a very good thing for our agency," he said. "It's popular with thousands of people and it's one of the showcases that our agency uses to explain to folks. Plus, it's easy to head for Jewell and see the elk."

But Sondra Jonker, Washington Wildlife Department manager, disagrees with that strategy for the Mt St Helens Wildlife Area. She insists that winter-feeding would pose health risks to the elk.

Moreover, "You're artificially concentrating the animals, changes their behavior, increased likelihood of disease transmission and so for a variety of reasons we don't want to do that. We do understand that (starvation) may be tough to look at, but we also recognize that is a normal process."

Jonker told KGW that they have chosen to improve the available elk habitat and grow more forage food for the elk to eat. In fact, this spring they will plant 14,000 trees to help stabilize the landscape along the river and prevent erosion.

Brian Calkins, a Washington Wildlife Dept biologist said that habitat is key to survival for the Loowit elk herd: "That's the long term solution to erosion control - the structures that we'll be building are just to get those trees established so they're large enough to hold the bank together."

Still, Mark Smith argues that thousands of dollars have already been poured into habitat projects on the refuge over the last two decades - and many of the projects never took root

He said that a regular and consistent winter-feeding plan would stop starvation in its tracks and perhaps attract more visitors to the area too.

"What I'm trying to do is what I believe is the right thing, he noted. "I don't think they need to be any more abused than they already have been."

The Washington Department of Wildlife plans to offer volunteer work sessions on the Loowit Wildlife Area this spring. Volunteers are needed for tree planting projects.

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