OLYMPIA — The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife can’t act independently of Indian tribes to shoot elk on farmland in Skagit County, agency leaders said Saturday.
Responding to a proposal to shoot more elk, Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Brad Smith said the appointed board didn’t have the authority to consider the request.
“If we could just make a decision today, we would do it. We live in a world of co-management and right, wrong, whatever, that’s the world that we have to operate within,” Smith said.
The department and nine tribes have nurtured the North Cascades elk herd, a large portion of which live on agricultural land in the Upper Skagit Valley. The valley makes up a small part of the herd’s total range.
Farmers report that elk are damaging crops, pastures and fences. School officials say they’re worried buses will crash into elk and that elk are venturing onto school grounds, tearing up fields and putting students in harm’s way.
Fish and Wildlife officials say they are working with tribes to haze elk and build fences. Over the previous nine months, landowners harvested 23 cows and seven bulls with department-issued damage-control permits.
County officials and some landowners are advocating stronger action. On Saturday morning, they rode a school bus to the commission’s regular meeting and presented a resolution asking Fish and Wildlife to issue more kill permits, and with fewer conditions.
Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind said landowners clearly have a problem and the agency to date has been unable to resolve it. He said a resolution will requiring talks involving the tribes.
“It’s important to remember there’s a whole side to this equation that wasn’t here today that has an equal level of conviction, and that is part of the reason it is such a difficult problem,” he said. “We did not hear from them.”
No tribal representative spoke at the meeting Saturday. On Friday, Stillaguamish tribe wildlife policy lead Jesse Pecor urged the commission to disregard the coming request to shoot elk. Instead, the department should join with tribes in continuing efforts to move pockets of elk, he said.
“We understand there is an impact to agriculture and the folks that live in the area. We also feel as though the department and tribes have been working together over the last few years diligently trying to relieve some of the pressure off the agriculture folks,” he said.
“We believe if the department did issue the substantial increase in damage permits on the valley floor that it would impact treaty rights,” Pecor said.
The Lummi, Nooksack, Stillaguamish, Swinomish, Upper Skagit, Suquamish, Sauk-Suiattle, Tulalip and Muckleshoot tribes have hunting rights under the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty.
Fish and Wildlife and tribes signed an agreement in 2013 to exhaust non-lethal ways to control elk before using lethal removal. The agreement commits Fish and Wildlife to collaborate with tribes, though the agreement can be canceled and doesn’t foreclose the possibility that disputes will end up in court.
According to the agreement, Fish and Wildlife and the tribes disagree on the scope of the state’s authority to kill wildlife that are damaging private property.
Skagit County Cattlemen’s Association vice president Randy Good said the Fish and Wildlife Commission should exert its authority.
“The commission, the boss, needs to take action,” he said. “We’re not saying they can’t have the elk where they belong. We’re saying, ‘Get the elk off private property.’”