By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News
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On Thursday, information from tracking collars worn by cows in the Dungeness herd led wildlife officials to believe it was preparing to cross the highway about a mile southeast of downtown Sequim. Sheriff's deputies are poised to close the highway if that happens.
“We're concerned because of where they are,” said Tim Cullinan, wildlife program coordinator for the Point No Point Treaty Council, which manages the herd.
About 35 elk were in woods north of the highway, in an area where the road curves and the treeline is close to the highway, giving drivers very little time to stop, he said.
“They come out of the woods and in a few steps and they're on the road,” Cullinan said.
The herd often stays near the road for a few days before making the crossing, he said, and added that he thought the herd would make their move in the dark, either Thursday night, early this morning, or tonight.
However, they can cross at any time.
Once common, elk crossings have become relatively rare, Cullinan said.
The last major herd crossing was during daylight hours, he added.
Lorraine Shore, Clallam County Sheriff's Office community policing coordinator, said deputies have been made aware of the situation and planned to shut down the road when the big animals — which include adult cows weighing between 700 and 800 pounds — decide the time is right.
The possible road closure was announced by the Sheriff's Office on Thursday on Nixle, an email and text message notification system used by law enforcement agencies to alert residents of hazards.
Roosevelt Elk, the largest elk in North America, are much larger than the typical 125-pound white tail doe.
If a car hits an elk in the road at a speed high enough to kill an elk, it often means the car is destroyed, Cunnihan said.
It is the first time since April that the main Sequim elk herd of about 35 cows, calves and yearlings have shown interest in moving south of the highway, Cullinan said.
First discovered in the 1970s, the slowly migrating herd kept to a higher elevation range in the Dungeness watershed area in the Olympic National Forest.
In the 1980s, it emerged from the forest and began moving north, into the Happy Valley area, Cullinan said.
At one time, the herd crossed the highway about monthly, moving between their northern and southern range.
In the last two years, the animals have spent about 10 months a year north of Highway 101, mostly in the Graysmarsh area, and cross only two to four times a year, Cullinan said.
“They seem to understand that the highway is a dangerous place,” he said.
When the herd finally does cross the road, the movement starts with a trickle — one or two cows and their calves at a time, Cullinan said.
Unlike deer, elk don't dart into the road, he said.
They are more sedate and calm, but can move quickly.
Once a significant number of them are across the road, the entire herd notices and rushes to join them — often a group as large as 15 or 20 can all be on the road pavement at one time — and they all cross within a few seconds, he said.
Cullinan said that a smaller group of 10-15 mature bulls, weighing in at about 1,000 pounds each, stay with the herd only during the two-month rutting season.
They spend more time in Happy Valley, range east to Palo Alto Road and are sometimes west of the Dungeness River.
The cow herd hasn't crossed the Dungeness River in 15 to 20 years, Cullinan said.
Why the elk migrated to the valley is a mystery to wildlife biologists, Cullinan added, but speculated that their predators — mountain lions and bear — are less likely to be a threat near human habitation, and the lower elevations and farmland provide a higher quality food source.
The herd, which once boasted 125 individuals, has been thinned in response to complaints from Sequim-area farmers and residents, both by hunting and by capture and relocation programs.
This year, Cullinan has recorded 13 elk from the herd killed through permitted hunting, and several natural deaths, including two calves and a cow.
It has been several years since an elk was killed crossing Highway 101, partly due to the flashing light that alerts drivers, and partly because they aren't crossing the road as often as they once did, Cullinan said.
Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.