Elk gather for a feeding last January at Oak Creek Wildlife Area near Naches.

Wildfire smoke and closures could add more obstacles to the start of an already discouraging elk season.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife region director Mike Livingston said it’s not clear if changes will be made should the Department of Natural Resources extend its closure of recreation areas past Friday and into this weekend’s opening of early archery season. Either way, hunters’ opportunities will once again be limited as area elk populations continue to fall.

“I just think (hunters) need to be aware of the ever-changing things going on right now with fire and what they may or may not find open when they arrive at their favorite hunting grounds,” Livingston said. “That’s the big question right now.”

District 8 biologist Jeff Bernatowicz wrote in his ”Hunting Prospects” that the Yakima herd remains one of the largest in the state with an estimated total of more than 8,000. That’s well below the wildlife department’s objective of 9,500 and Bernatowicz noted the calf recruitment of 19 per 100 cows counted on feed sites is the lowest ever recorded.

The smaller Colockum Herd, located north of Ellensburg, fell by more than 300 to 3,800, according to winter surveys. Just a few years ago that herd included more than 6,000 elk, Bernatowicz wrote, and the department’s objective is 4,500.

As a result, the archery season will return to the full 13 days after being cut short last year but hunters won’t be able to shoot antlerless elk in most areas. In 2019 hunters in the district reported killing only 540 antlerless elk during the district’s general season and special hunts, 54 below the record low from 2018.

With few spike bulls available this fall, Bernatowicz expects success rates to drop even lower than the district’s three-year average of 5%. Permits for branched bulls and antlerless elk will also continue to drop until calf recruitment trends can be reversed.

Livingston’s hopeful things could turn around soon after some mild winters following the droughts and harsh winters believed to be the cause of declining population. It’s also possible predators are playing a role, Livingston said, and he dismissed speculation that tribal hunters significantly affect the herds.

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He’s still expecting plenty of hunters will want to try their luck, since more people than ever are going outside during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bernatowicz recommended going to more remote wilderness areas and hunting later in the season for a better experience.

Warm weather could keep the Yakima Herd in particular at higher elevations, mostly on Forest Service land where closures are unlikely. Livingston also noted the Evans Canyon Fire may have destroyed some elk habitat on the Wenas Wildlife Area, which remains closed until further notice.

Despite the challenges, nearly 900 hunters managed to bring home an elk during the general season a year ago. Success rates looked similar across archery, muzzleloader and modern firearm seasons.

Livingston also advised hunters to remember COVID-19 guidelines and wear a mask if they’re in close contact with others from outside their own household. But for the most part, hunting offers a great way to enjoy the outdoors and maintain social distancing enough to not worry about the virus.

Deer see slight rebound

After hitting a record low in 2018, the number of deer killed by hunters in the district grew by more than 130 in 2019.

Bernatowicz wrote he doesn’t expect to see much growth in the average success rate of 6%, not even close to the statewide average of 23%. Spring population surveys indicated that number remained relatively unchanged.

Reach Luke Thompson at luthompson@yakimaherald.com and on Twitter: @luketscribe