SKAGIT COUNTY (Feb. 8, 2008) – Many North Sound tribes traditionally relied on elk meat for sustenance. But these days there are fewer hunting opportunities because of diminishing quality habitat and declining elk populations.
Without sufficient harvest opportunities to feed their members, tribes turn to meat salvage. The proximity of the Upper Skagit Tribe’s reservation to Highway 20 puts the tribe in a prime location to retrieve animals that have been struck by vehicles. Each year, the tribe recovers three to five elk that have been killed on the road or illegally hunted.
In September, members of the Upper Skagit Tribe recovered a seven-point elk that was struck by a vehicle along Highway 20. The animal was towed from the bank of the Skagit River and shared with the Swinomish Tribe.
“We do what we have to do, because we don’t have access to enough animals,” said Scott Schuyler, policy representative for the Upper Skagit Tribe. “We’re making good use of this traditional meat, which would otherwise go to waste. We share the salvaged elk with the other Point Elliott tribes.” In addition to Upper Skagit and Swinomish, the Point Elliott Treaty tribes are Lummi, Muckleshoot, Nooksack, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, Suquamish and Tulalip.
“When the tribes signed treaties with the U.S. government, ceding the land that is now western Washington, we reserved the right to hunt on open and unclaimed land,” said Todd Wilbur, chairman of the inter-tribal hunting committee of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and a member of the Swinomish Tribe. “Even if there were enough elk to meet tribal needs, we wouldn’t have any place to hunt because the habitat has been fragmented by development.”
Tribes have spent close to a million dollars and thousands of hours toward reviving the Nooksack elk herd in the North Cascades Mountains. The herd had dwindled during the past 20 years from 1,700 animals to about 300. Tribal and state efforts to rebuild the herd included relocating 98 elk from the Mount St. Helens area, projects to improve elk forage and a decade-long moratorium on hunting.
“We’ve shown that we’re willing to make great sacrifices for the future of the resource,” Wilbur said. “Giving up hunting the Nooksack herd for the past 10 years was a huge blow to us, but we made that sacrifice.”
As a result of the restoration efforts, the Nooksack herd rebounded to about 600 animals. Last fall, Point Elliott tribes shared permits to harvest 15 bull elk. In 2006, tribal hunters in western Washington harvested 319 elk, while non-tribal hunters harvest 7,191.
“Elk are as important to our culture as salmon,” Schuyler said. “The meat also is an important source of protein that helps our communities stretch tight food budgets.”