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Dairies, ranchers beset by too many elk

Dan Wheat
A state senator has called a meeting to address a problem of elk consuming forage on dairies and ranches meant for feeding dairy and beef cattle.

ENUMCLAW, Wash. — Dairy operators and cattle ranchers around Enumclaw and Buckley are increasingly frustrated with a growing elk population consuming grass and corn on their fields intended to feed beef and dairy cows.

It’s probably costing about 30 dairies and ranches “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” yet very little has been done about it, says Bill Sylvester, 70, a Buckley rancher and former dairyman.

Sylvester has been talking to state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, who has arranged a meeting for ranchers and dairy owners, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington Farm Bureau for 6:30 p.m. April 8 at Enumclaw Public Library.

Roach called it a “taking” of private property and said the herds need to be thinned significantly.

“It’s a problem that will only get worse,” she said. “We have to see what can be done. I don’t think it will be an easy task.”

The complex situation stems back to March 2010 when WDFW carved a new game management unit, GMU 6013, out of GMU 652 and designated 6013 for the benefit of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Sylvester said. The new unit consists of some 5,000 acres, half of which is private agricultural land, he said.

It had about 100 elk in 2010 but hunting was more severely restricted and now there are at least 200 elk and it won’t be long until there are 300, Sylvester said.

The herds stay in the area year-round and are a problem for dairies in GMU 6013, he said. More dairies are more severely impacted by an additional 200 elk in the Enumclaw portion of GMU 652, he said. They have to buy more feed, he said.

“I adjoin one of the dairies and these elk love well managed pastures. I had 49 of them in January and they took the choice grass,” said Sylvester, whose ranch is in GMU 6013.

His grass grew back in a few weeks but the elk returned and ate it again, he said. He estimates it’s costing him about $1,500 annually in lost pasture silage and hay production for his 25 to 45 cattle. He can no longer plant corn for silage because the elk destroy the crop.

Beyond feed loss there’s damage to fences that’s costing ranches and dairies, he said.

Sylvester faults the Fish and Wildlife Commission, not the department, for what he calls “gross mismanagement.” The commission jointly manages GMU 6013 with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and the unwillingness of both to control the herds seems like an effort to convince landowners to allow tribal hunts on private property, he said.

The tribe could not be reached for comment.

Sylvester said he signed a damage prevention cooperative agreement with WDFW in which he waived any claim for reimbursement of up to his first $5,000 in loss and damages. As part of the agreement, he tried non-lethal hazing and then was issued master hunting permits for two years. The permits were used to kill four elk, which didn’t do a lot, he said.

Other limited hunting is allowed but what’s needed is more hunting to keep the herds under control, he said.

Black powder antlerless hunting should be resumed and a January damage-control hunt and November modern-weapon hunt should be expanded to more permits for elk cows, not just 3-point bulls and older, Sylvester said.

“It wouldn’t handle the problem, but it would be a start,” he said.

But it would only work in GMU 6013 as the portion of GMU 652 near Enumclaw is a no-shooting zone, he said.



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