Mount St. Helens Revisited #2

With few exceptions, sportsmen should be able to enjoy their outdoor pastimes this fall much as they have in past years.

by Dick Bolding

Reprinted from Washington Wildlife, Fall 1980.

The blasted, monochromatic landscape littered with charred, denuded tree trunks has a kind of sterile beauty. But it's hard to look at the land around Mt. St. Helens without longing for the majestic forest that covered these ridges and valleys before the volcano's catastrophic eruption. Few who hunted elk in its forests or fished for steelhead in its pristine rivers can help but compare this biological desert with the magnificent vistas of a few months ago.

Yet the future for wildlife here is not quite as dim as it seemed during the first stunned weeks after the mountain's devastating May 18 explosion. Most recent observations by wildlife scientists around the state have been a source of optimism.

There's no denying that in the immediate vicinity of the volcano wildlife and wildlife habitat will take a long time to recover. But farther away from the mountain there have already been signs that nature is healing her wounds.

Wildlife biologist Rich Poelker recently flew into the blast zone about 10 miles north of the volcano, near the junction of Grizzly Creek and the upper Green River, just beyond Mount Margaret. He found a timber graveyard--tangled bodies of giant old-growth fir trees and occasional stands of dead, heat-seared trees. Flash-flooding left deposits of ash-laden mud in this part of the upper Green and its tributaries, and ash covers the ground in a layer that varies from two to six inches deep. While Poelker was there, he saw no living thing. But when he moved just three miles downstream, he found plants sprouting through the ash blanket at the rate of some 8,000 per acre and saw many deer and elk tracks.

Other observers have seen sprouting vegetation along mudflows that choke the north and south forks of the Toutle River. Streams are beginning to erode through the volcanic debris to the harder surfaces of the stream beds below. Upriver much of the fine silt has been washed away, and the water is already clear, although it gets progressively murkier downstream.

Fish biologists reported that some aquatic insects in the streams survived the disaster--a sign that bodes well for all the species that depend on these insects for food. Surprisingly, some observers have even reported seeing steelhead that have made their way upstream on the main Toutle, and fish are moving freely up the Cowlitz River, which was blocked by mud and volcanic debris just a couple of months ago.

Deer and elk are showing up in the valley bottoms with a nearly normal proportion of young. The animals seem to be in good condition, but biologists are quick to point out that they have yet to face the critical winter months, when food will be in short supply. And winter rains could reverse the recovery process, severely eroding the untimbered slopes and scouring the valleys. Floods could prove disastrous to the rebuilding fishery and jeopardize this year's wildlife production.

Many high lakes within the blast zone are filled with ash and debris from the eruption, and some even had most of their water blown out by the concussion. Although the fisheries in these lakes were obviously destroyed, biologist Bruce Crawford found plankton--the microscopic organisms that directly or indirectly support all aquatic life--still living in what was left of some of them. In Hanaford Lake, about 120 miles northeast of the mountain, he found a live female crawfish. He theorizes that, barring further destructive eruptions, the food chain may recover enough to support fish in some of these lakes in two or three years.

Because most ash from the eruptions drifted north and east from the volcano, lakes on the mountain's southwest side suffered little damage. Merrill Lake, Mc-Bride Lake, Kalama Springs, and Blue Lake all contain fine ash, but it has not, so far, significantly affected their fisheries.

High lake fisheries suffered the most damage in areas that received moderate to heavy ash falls. Ash smothered the bottom-dwelling insects on which fish feed and filled the spaces between the pebbles and rocks of the lake bottoms, eliminating the insects' habitat. No doubt many fish suffered fatal gill damage from the exposure to suspended ash particles in the water.

Outside the blast zone, toward the east, the depth of the ash blanket varies, as does the particle size. Rain has washed most of the gray mantle from trees and bushes, but ash still covers the ground. Blue Lake, 22 miles northeast of St. Helens, is surrounded by a heavy ash cover, but the lake water is still blue and clear. Ten miles farther east, Walupt Lake got a two- to four-inch accumulation of sand-like ash; here Game Department and Forest Service personnel found lake water temperatures and acidity to be normal. Bottom-dwelling invertebrates were reduced as a result of the ash, but not seriously. Biologists collected 32 rainbow trout, several cutthroat and 200 crayfish from the lake and found them all in good condition.

At Packwood Lake, 12 miles north of Walupt, conditions are much the same. The ash that fell here was finer, and it remained in suspension in the water longer, reducing the production of microscopic life. But enough aquatic insects survived to provide fish with an adequate food supply. Just southeast of Packwood Lake Poelker saw a band of 23 elk--10 of them calves--and on a high ridge above Smith Creek, a few miles to the west, he counted five ash-colored mountain goats.

Still farther east, ash fallout painted a 50-mile-wide band across the Cascade crest as it moved northeasterly toward Spokane. Most high lakes along the crest that got ash have not been scientifically monitored to assess the effects on their fisheries, but preliminary observations suggest that most have not been much affected. Some lakes without strong outlet currents seem murky from the suspended ash particles, but most lakes in this area have been providing their usual fishing--even those that are slightly off-color.

East of the Cascades, the Yakima County high country got an average of about an eighth of an inch of ash. The heaviest deposits were along the upper Tieton River south of White Pass, where the ash measures nearly an inch. Even so, regional Game Department biologist Ellis Bowhay has reported frequent big game sightings in the area, including observations of many young deer and elk.

After the May 18 eruption and ash fall, the first thing Bowhay and most other east-side observers had noticed was the loss of insects. Most young birds had just hatched or were about to hatch and were almost entirely dependent on insects for food. In some places, Bowhay said, hundreds of young cliff swallows were found lying dead on the ground below nest sites, apparently as a result of starvation, and the situation was much the same for many other songbirds.

As the summer progressed, wildlife inventory crews reported seeing fewer rodents and small animals than in past years. Their observations confirmed that, of all the wildlife, small birds and mammals were hardest hit by the eruptions.

Far more encouraging has been the frequency of upland bird sightings in eastern Washington. Immediately after the May 18 eruption, biologists reported that in some areas up to 85 percent of the pheasant hens were driven to abandon their nests. They feared that even if upland birds were to successfully renest, the survival of the newly hatched young would be limited by the reduced number of insects.

But counts of pheasant, quail and chukar broods in the Yakima region appeared to be as good as they were during some high population years. The counts were so good, in fact, that Bowhay confesses he's a little nervous about the effects of the reduction of insects and the habitat's capacity to support the birds through the winter. He attributed the good bird production to an apparently high rate of second nesting attempts. Heavy spring rains stimulated a more luxuriant growth of range grasses which lasted longer than usual into the dry summer months, providing good cover for nesting birds.

The high incidence of renesting by pheasants during the summer has resulted in more younger birds than most years, so hunters this fall will shoot greater-than-normal numbers of mature roosters

Similar fears about losing this year's upland bird production in the Columbia Basin have also proven unnecessary. High brood counts and the gradual comeback of insects in the Basin are good omens for this year's upland bird season.

Likewise, the lack of terrestrial insects during the height of eastern Washington's spring hatch apparently did little harm to waterfowl populations. Aquatic organisms furnished enough protein to carry small ducklings through their early days of life until they could forage for a wider variety of foods.

However, inventories of duck populations in nesting grounds throughout western Canada are a little lower than usual due to the effects of short water supplies on nesting and hatching survival. That means fewer ducks migrating through during hunting season. But although production is somewhat less than last year, it has not dropped enough to require any reduction in hunters' bag limits.

So, while there can be no doubt about the loss of wildlife and destruction of habitat near the volcano, short-term investigation seems to show that the effects of ash fallout beyond the blast area are not as severe as biologists had earlier feared. That's good news for sportsmen and other outdoor recreationists who should be able to enjoy wildlife-related activities this fall much as in past years.

Of course, there are some exceptions. The area around Mount St. Helens will be closed indefinitely to all recreation, as will most of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. As for central and eastern Washington, the ash should prove not more than a discomfort and an inconvenience for outdoorsmen. It shouldn't seriously hamper their activities. Bird dog trainers, for instance, report that working their dogs in the volcanic dust has had no apparent ill effects on their dogs. Those living in ash-fall areas say the ash will be with us for a few years--we'll just have to put up with it.

As it turns out, the May 18 eruption was not the end of the world, nor will it seriously limit hunting and fishing opportunities in our state. And while there may be more eruptions in the future, we know now that we can deal with the aftermath, and so can our wildlife.

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