The South Rainier Elk Herd is one of ten elk herds living in Washington State. This herd’s range covers around 1,100 square miles, and is located in parts of Lewis County, Thurston County, and Mount Rainier National Park. The herd area is bounded on the east be the North Cascade Crest Trail. On the west and south, it is bounded by major highways, and on the north, by highways, the Nisqually River and Mt. Rainier National Park. Land ownership in the area is a mix of public and private holdings. The majority of the land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, which has the administration of around 400 square miles of land, primarily composed of Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the southern boundary of Mt. Rainier National Park. Private holdings are located mostly along the Cowlitz River. There are small tracts of state land in the area. The remainder of the land is held by industrial forestry interests. Elevations within the herd area are between 250 feet and 14,400 feet (the summit of Mt. Rainier). Level and gently rolling terrain is rare, occurring mostly along major drainages such as the Cispus and Cowlitz Rivers. The elk occupy almost all of the herd area below 6,500 feet, except for areas that are extraordinarily steep or rocky.
Humans make extensive use of the area in which the South Rainier Elk Herd is located, mostly for recreational purposes. For instance, the visitor usage of Mt. Rainier National Park was over two million in the 1990s. Hiking, backpacking, skiing, and other recreational activities are common, as well as trapping, fishing, and hunting. These activities occur both in the park and on adjacent lands that are privately owned.
The area along the Cowlitz river has been developed extensively, both for agricultural and residential purposes. This has significantly affected the wintering area of this herd. There has been a significant loss of important winter habitat for these elk, as well as a rise in elk/human conflict. In addition, intensive clear cut logging has changed almost all of the forests not in the bounds of the national park. Originally, this area was made up almost entirely of old growth forest. However, the area is now covered in second and third generation growth reaching to approximately 3,300 feet in elevation, and covering almost all of the elk’s winter range.
The greatest influence humans have had on this herd, however,has been through direct elk mortality. The annual regulated hunting harvest removes around forty to sixty percent of all bull elk. The population of the South Rainier Elk Herd has varied widely. For instance, in 1994, there were as many as four thousand individuals in this area. By 1997, that number had fallen to 1,500. It is estimated that the current population of the herd is around 2,100 animals. Management goals for the South Rainier herd include increasing the numbers of elk to a level of about 3,000 animals. In general, elk population levels will be maintained or increased, depending on the area, except in locations where they are causing a lot of damage or having conflict with humans. The current population ratios, when assessed before the hunting season, are fifteen to seventeen bulls per hundred cows, a figure which has stayed steady since 1996, and forty-six to forty-eight calves for every hundred cows.
Harvest strategies for this herd have varied significantly over the past forty years. They have included permission to take any bull, to spike-only bulls with a general permit, and branch antlered bulls taken by special permit. In some cases, only three point bulls or greater have been permitted. The three point minimum rule has been more common in recent years, and is the current method of regulating the elk harvest for the South Rainier Elk Herd. Antler point restrictions normally mean higher bull to cow ratios after the hunting season, but fewer older animals survive. Before 2000, it was legal to harvest antlerless elk during the archery season, or with firearms by special permit. However, antlerless harvest has not recently been permitted.
Current goals for the maintenance and management of this herd include an increase in the estimated elk population, while paying attention to habitat limitations and problems landowners may experience. The maintenance and improvement of elk habitat on U.S. Forest service lands is to be encouraged, and hunting is to be kept to a limit which will allow all herds to reach the state requirement of twelve or more bulls for every hundred cows.