Questions & Answers About the

Wolf Prey Base Studies in Olympic National Park

Contact: Doug Zimmer, USFWS, 360/753-9440

Barb Maynes, NPS, 360/452-0317

April 9, 1999

Why were prey base studies needed?

An understanding of prey numbers is critical to assessing the feasibility of reintroducing a predator to an area. The prey base studies were needed to expand on existing information about deer and elk abundance on the Olympic Peninsula, as part of examining the feasibility of gray wolf restoration.

Existing information on deer and elk abundance in Olympic National Park was limited. Roosevelt elk had not been counted in over 10 years and the park had never done any monitoring of Columbian black-tailed deer. Knowledge of the current status of deer and elk populations in the park are important in developing the immediate prey assessment, and will lay the groundwork for any additional studies.

How do the prey-base studies relate to the wolf feasibility studies?

The prey-base studies can be thought of as a field research component of the feasibility studies. Current data on elk and deer populations from the prey-base studies were made available to the University of Idaho team for inclusion in the feasibility studies. The first estimates of black-tailed deer abundance provide a foundation for monitoring long-term trends in deer abundance in a selected deer winter range and for designing more comprehensive estimates of deer abundance in the future.

Who did the prey-base studies?

The prey-base studies were divided into two components: inside and outside Olympic National Park. The report released today describes the studies inside Olympic National Park, which were designed and analyzed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)-Biological Resources Division and were conducted cooperatively by USGS and Olympic National Park biologists.

Prey base studies outside the park were designed and conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. This work is still being analyzed and will be released later this year.

What were the objectives of prey-base studies within Olympic National Park?

There were three objectives for the studies inside the park. These were to:

update the estimates of Roosevelt elk abundance in selected winter ranges on the west side of the park;

begin estimating distribution and density of Columbian black-tailed deer in a selected winter range;

make recommendations for developing a park-wide estimate of deer density.

How many deer and elk are in Olympic National Park?

Developing a park-wide estimate for deer was not an objective for the prey base studies. Given the short duration of this research project -- one field season -- there was not enough time to survey enough of the park to develop a park-wide deer estimate. Instead the deer portion of the studies were concentrated in the Elwha Valley.

Based on this and earlier elk research, the park-wide estimate for elk is approximately 5,000 animals in summer and 3,000 - 4,000 during the winter. The lower figures for winter are due to elk migrating out of the park during winter in eastern and southern drainages.

What is the current status of Roosevelt elk on west-side winter ranges?

Elk populations have been monitored in the Hoh, South Fork Hoh and Queets Valleys since the mid-1980s using helicopter surveys during early spring. The density of elk averaged 16 elk/mile2, verifying the high carrying capacity of these west-side ranges. Elk populations have remained stable in the Hoh and Queets since the mid-1980s. High winds and fog hampered field elk surveys in the South Fork Hoh so those results were inconclusive.

What is the current status of black-tailed deer in the Elwha Valley?

Black-tailed deer populations in the Elwha Valley averaged about 12-17 deer/mile2, depending upon the survey method. Densities of deer vary considerably between north, east and west-side valleys, so more work is required to develop a comprehensive estimate for the entire park.

Are the prey base studies continuing?

The prey base studies are continuing in a very limited manner. At present there is no additional funding to support wolf restoration activities in Olympic National Park. Although additional work may be needed in the future to flesh out more comprehensive estimates of deer and elk abundance in the park, that work is on hold indefinitely. Biologists are continuing to monitor the distribution of a sample of radio-collared female deer and to monitor trends in abundance in the Elwha study area. They hope to follow the radio-collared deer during the life of the equipment (3 years) to provide useful information on survival/mortality of deer and to define the elevational limits of deer winter ranges in the park. Continued monitoring of deer abundance in the Elwha will be useful to park management for a variety of purposes.

With the wolf issue seemingly on hold, why do we need to know how many deer and elk are in the park?

It is simply a prudent use of taxpayer dollars to gather as much information as possible for the funds expended . In addition to providing more information for consideration in the wolf restoration question, it is important to know more about deer and elk populations inside the park because:

  1. Deer and elk are keystone species; increases and decreases in their population numbers have repercussions throughout the park ecosystem;
  2. Through grazing and browsing, deer and elk have profound effects on the understory vegetation in the park. Without the action of these animals, most of the grassy areas in the park in the lower valleys would disappear, and dense salmonberry thickets would develop;
  3. Deer and elk serve as the food source for a wide variety of species, ranging from cougar and coyotes to ravens and crows.

Where do we go from here?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was asked to investigate a proposal to reintroduce gray wolves to the Olympic Peninsula and provide its findings to Congress. The feasibility study and prey base studies are part of that effort. It will be up to Congress to direct the course of any future actions regarding wolf reintroduction on the Olympic Peninsula.