Elk herd grows into a nuisance, disrupting farming in northwest Washington
By Don Jenkins
SEDRO-WOOLLEY, Wash. — In the Skagit River Valley rippling through a tiny portion of northwest Washington, farmers and ranchers say they are overrun by elk, the consequence of a continuing effort by wildlife managers to enlarge the North Cascades herd.
Efforts to increase the number of elk in northwest Washington go back more than a century. In 1912, Skagit County brought in 46 elk from Yellowstone National Park to increase the herd. Poachers took the elk, according to state Department of Fish and Wildlife records. In the late 1940s, the state released 22 elk from King and Yakima counties. They became the foundation of today’s herd.
The most recent importation of elk came between 2003 and 2005, when 98 elk from the Mount St. Helens area in southern Washington were rounded up by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and Indian tribes. The animals were herded by helicopter through livestock chutes, loaded on horse trailers and driven north to Skagit County.
They were let go not far from the farms and ranches east of Sedro-Woolley. The herd grew, as intended, and farmers started seeing elk in their fields, more each year. Elk, once rare, are common now. They calve in the valley, stay year-round and make farming and ranching there more difficult and expensive.
The elk eat hay grown for livestock, bust fences, dig up potatoes and stunt trees by gnawing on the bark. Farmers worry about their livestock escaping through the broken fences or becoming infected with hoof rot, a disease that plagues elk.
The farmers say they are frustrated, both by the burgeoning elk population and the lack of cooperation from wildlife managers.
Farmers had no say in the importation of elk that began 15 years ago.
“They didn’t ask us. They just dumped them on our property,” said John Jonasson, a hog and beef producer whose family has farmed in the valley since 1870. “We don’t hate the elk. We hate the numbers.”
Elk are a widespread problem in the Pacific Northwest, where they number nearly 300,000 and cause agricultural damage throughout the region. Farmers on the Olympic Peninsula, in the Columbia Gorge, Eastern Oregon, Western Idaho and elsewhere have all recently reported increasing damage caused by elk.
Washington has an estimated 50,000 and 60,000 elk in 10 herds. The North Cascades herd near Sedro-Woolley is the state’s smallest.
The Fish and Wildlife Department, which co-manages the herd with nine Native American tribes, is working on a new herd plan. The tribes, who secured hunting rights by signing the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty, oppose submitting the plan to the Legislature for approval, but state lawmakers made a gesture and put into a spending bill instructions to Fish and Wildlife to have a plan by the end of the summer to minimize the number of elk on private land and maximize the number of elk on public land.
Amy Windrope, Fish and Wildlife’s acting deputy director, said it won’t be easy.
She agreed with farmers’ fundamental complaint. “We need to get way more effective in getting the elk off the valley floor,” Windrope said.
Beyond that, managing the elk gets more difficult, she said. A large-scale culling of the herd would cause an uproar from valley residents who enjoy the elk, and the state must respect the treaty rights of the tribes.
“Finding a way forward is really tricky,” Windrope said. “I think it’s not happening fast enough for ag folks.”
Upper Skagit tribe policy representative Scott Schuyler said the tribe doesn’t want to see farms harmed, but it also wants a healthy elk herd.
“It’s always going to be our objective,” he said. “We realize it could be problematic for some, but we’re fortunate that we have the environment here to allow wildlife to remain here.
“We recognize there is a balancing act we have to achieve,” he said. “The reality is not everybody is going to be 100 percent happy.”
Fish and Wildlife’s plan to move elk out of the valley floor will include hunting, hazing, fences, creating elk habitat in the hills and issuing permits to farmers to shoot damage-causing elk.
Some farmers, though, are pessimistic. The plan doesn’t represent anything new, they say. The department already does those things.
“We’re not seeing any measurable improvements,” Skagit County Farm Bureau President Bill Schmidt said.
Skagit County Cattleman’s Association Vice President Randy Good said he’s losing hope the state will come up with something helpful.
“Things aren’t getting any better,” Good said. “They’re going to get worse.”
Plight of farmers
The Ovenell family has ranched near the tiny town of Concrete, 24 miles east of Sedro-Woolley, since the 1940s. Over the years, they saw an occasional elk. Then, six years ago, about 50 showed up in the fall, said Cindy Ovenell-Kleinhuizen.
Since then the ranch has been stuck with feeding elk in addition to feeding its beef cattle. The elk overgraze the pastures, leaving more weeds and less grass for cows, she said.
Because of elk, the ranch spends more to buy hay, fertilizer and install fences. Elk tear the plastic wrapped around hay bales and spoil whatever they don’t eat.
Hazing is time-consuming and futile, and permits to kill elk are a temporary fix, Ovenell-Kleinhuizen said.
“They may leave for a few days, but they come back and we begin again,” she said. “It’s not solving any problems.”
Dairy farmer Randy Mower said that for decades he grew enough hay to feed his 120 milking cows. Last year, however, he had to spend about $18,000 on hay to make up for what the elk ate.
He won’t ask for a permit from the state to shoot an elk.
“You’re kind of accepting that as your payment for all the damage,” Mower said. “I’m not going allow them to think I’ve accepted their payment.”
Another dairy farmer, Derek Blanken, said about 100 elk moved onto a 40-acre field and ate all of the hay.
“It’s getting worse. Last year was the most noticeable,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”
With milk prices low, it’s hard to afford to feed his cows, let alone the elk, he said. “I know I’m not the only dairyman hurting, but this isn’t helping my cause.”
Asked what should be done, Blanken suggested “a culling.”
“Get rid of them,” he said. “They don’t belong here.”
By the late 1990s, the herd was down to about 300 elk, the state estimated. About 125 lived on agricultural land along the Skagit River, while the rest lived at higher elevations to the north. The Fish and Wildlife Department said it was receiving two to four complaints a year from farmers.
In 2002, the department drew up a plan to expand the herd to 1,950 elk. The department calculated that was the minimum number needed to sustain the population. There had been 1,700 elk in the 1980s, before the herd began shrinking because of logging, forest roads and too much hunting, according to the department.
The department and tribes halted the hunting and imported the elk from Mount St. Helens.
The plan’s executive summary stated the department’s overall view: “While elk damage and use of agricultural lands is also an issue, it is recognized that private lands along the Skagit River are important areas for elk and that habitat must be preserved and protected.”
The plan discussed “herd augmentation” at length in an appendix.
The department speculated that the imported elk would learn from the older elk and stay in the hills.
If the elk did come down to the valley floor and cause damage, the department would have a “no-tolerance policy” and prioritize “lethal removal of offending animals.” Other parts of the plan suggested the state would try to reduce, but not completely stop, damage to farms.
In 2013, Fish and Wildlife signed an agreement with the tribes to co-manage the elk. The agreement calls for exhausting non-lethal means of controlling damage before using lethal removal.
The department does use lethal control. It issued 52 permits to shoot damage-causing elk in the herd between Aug. 1 and March 31. Schuyler, of the Upper Skagit tribe, said his tribe supports issuing the permits.
The state also funds fencing and compensates farmers for damage. Neither solves their problems, farmers say.
Fences shift elk from you to your neighbor, they say. Also, elk damage fences. Jonasson said he had a fence put up 21 months ago and it’s been breached by elk 20 times.
Compensation is another sore point. Fish and Wildlife reports paying out $67,412 since 2002 for damage caused by elk. No claims, however, have been paid during the past three years, even though Skagit County commissioners in a recent letter to the department complained that elk annually cause several hundred thousand dollars in damage to agriculture.
Filing a claim has many steps. It includes submitting tax records, property records, insurance records and an adjuster’s report. It means satisfying the department that preventive measures were good enough and that the public was allowed to hunt on your property. Two people filed claims last year, according to the department. One didn’t qualify and one didn’t complete the paperwork.
“People have given up,” Jonasson said. “It’s not worth their time.”
Windrope said the department doesn’t want the claims process to be a barrier to compensation. “We’re all for making it easy for farmers to get the help they need,” she said.
The county commissioners’ letter to the Fish and Wildlife Department restated complaints that elk are causing economic damage and threatening public safety.
The commissioners said that elk damage crops and pastures at about 30 farms a year. They said sheriff’s vehicles have collided with elk four times in the past six years.
“The increasing number of elk on the valley floor are a threat to public safety and have negative economic impacts far beyond the minimal reimbursements available,” the commissioners stated.
The commissioners pressed the department to immediately remove elk from private property by any means necessary. They cited a state law that says the state’s mandate to manage wildlife must not be construed to infringe on private property rights.
Good makes the same point. “We want them to just obey the law and get them off our farms,” he said.
Windrope defends her department’s efforts to do that.
“We’re working pretty hard to keep elk off their land,” she said. “We do not want to grow the herd in the valley floor of the Skagit.”
Her department’s goal is to have 1,700 to 2,000 elk in the North Cascades herd. It already may be that size. The department has only a rough idea because few elk are fitted with radio collars. The fewer the collars, the larger the margin of error in counting elk. A recent survey estimated 1,593 elk, plus or minus 716. The department also estimates 300 to 500 elk outside the survey area.
Whatever the total herd count, bands of elk in valley fields are common. “If you saw just one elk once in awhile, you’d say, ‘What a noble creature!’” said Mower, the dairy farmer. “Now they let your cattle out and you’re liable.”
The county commissioners also complained that elk interfere with gardens. Rural landowners aren’t eligible for compensation, only commercial farmers.
Retired teacher Janis Schweitzer guards her yard with flags drenched in milk, eggs, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, Tabasco sauce and pepper spray. Schweitzer lost a lot of garden to elk last year, but she said she will try again. “Yeah, I’m going to have a garden this year. I just bought a cannister of pepper spray.”
Jonasson said he followed the suggestion of a state wildlife manager and put tinfoil smeared with peanut butter on an electric fence. The elk were supposed to get a little shock and stay away.
The tinfoil blew in the wind and short-circuited the fence.