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One time per year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) conducts aerial counts of eastern Washington elk herds from helicopters or planes. This is done to determine population trends, effects of management activities, and to monitor health of the entire herd. The most recent count resulted in recommending reduced cow tags in the Blue Mountains.

Aerial counts are used by many wildlife and conservation agencies across the country. These surveys enable biologists to quickly cover large expanses of often rugged terrain and view animals not visible from the ground. They are conducted in winter when trees are bare and animals stand out against the white backdrop of snow. This also allows biologists to assess overwinter calf survival, which can vary with winter severity.

WDFW recognizes that elk have low energy reserves in late winter and closed some of the department’s wildlife areas in March to reduce human disturbances to the animals. Disturbing them for a few minutes once a year is far less stressful though than repeated interactions with people hiking or doing other recreation activities in elk range areas.

“Because these are short, high intensity reactions (to the plane or helicopter), energy used by the animals is coming primarily from metabolism of blood glucose and muscle glycogen,” said Scott McCorquodale, WDFW’s authority on aerial wildlife counts and a specialist on elk. “They are not burning fat stored during these events. When animals are moved over and over again though, or are reacting for extended times, as when disturbed by people on foot or in vehicles, energy used is coming from aerobic respiration, which uses fat stores as fuel.”

In light of the harsh winter, some members of the public had concerns about the possibility of aerial counts harming animals.

“Elk are a species that evolved to flee perceived danger when necessary, even late in pregnancy,” said WDFW veterinarian Kristin Mansfield. “I wouldn’t expect a disturbance as brief as those used in aerial counts to have any harmful effects.”

Mansfield and McCorquodale say all tenets of the Eastern Washington Aerial Elk Survey Protocol were observed during the recent surveys. The protocol is 18 pages of information on why and how aerial counts are conducted. It includes implementation details for surveys, how and when flights are conducted, and even where the aircraft will be positioned over the herd when elk are sighted.

The protocol is supported by the Review of Big-Game Survey Methods Used by Wildlife Agencies of the Western United States[1], Idaho fish and Game’s Aerial Survey: User’s Manual, and other industry white papers and publications.

McCorquodale himself authored a peer-reviewed research paper on elk surveys called Sex-Specific Bias in Helicopter Surveys of Elk: Sightability and Dispersion Effects that was published in the Journal of Widllife Management.

More information on elk and their habitat can be found on the WDFW website at

[1] Michael J. Rabe, Steven S. Rosenstock, and James C. deVos, Jr. “Review of Big-Game Survey Methods Used by Wildlife Agencies of the Western United States. Wildlife Society Bulletin, Vol. 30, №1 (Spring 2002) pp. 46–52.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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