Skagit elk

Elk graze in a field in the Upper Skagit Valley of northwest Washington state. Elk remain a problem, according to farmers and school and county officials. Wildlife managers had come up with a plan they hope will help them get ahead of the problem.

Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife will pre-emptively issue farmers permits to kill elk damaging property in eastern Skagit County, rather than waiting for a complaint, according to a plan wildlife managers outlined June 14.

With a permit on hand, a landowner will be able to shoot an elk without delay, regional wildlife manager Fenner Yarborough told the Fish and Wildlife Commission at a meeting in Port Angeles.

“We’re getting some feedback from folks that they’ll have elk on their property, our conflict specialist will come out, issue a permit and then the elk are gone,” he said. “We feel like we can get ahead of that a little bit on properties that have chronic damage.”

Fish and Wildlife estimates up to 400 elk are in the Upper Skagit Valley, an area with farms, rural homes and cultivated elk refuges. Farmers, ranchers, county officials and school superintendents say the proliferation of elk in the valley over the past decade threatens life and property.

Fish and Wildlife and area Indian tribes, which have a goal of increasing the herd, acknowledge problems, but have not committed to reducing the elk population by a certain number. The Fish and Wildlife plan, however, is intended to increase the number of elk shot by landowners who are sustaining frequent damage.

The department issued 66 damage-control permits to valley landowners in the past year, but only 30 elk were killed. “We can give a landowner a permit, but we can’t pull the trigger,” Yarborough said.

Skagit County Deputy Prosecutor Will Honea attributed the low success rate to the time-consuming logistics of killing and butchering an elk.

He brokered a deal with Fish and Wildlife to let landowners pick the hunter and charge a fee for coming onto their property. Fish and Wildlife also agreed to never force a landowner to open property to public hunting.

Fish and Wildlife will resume issuing kill permits July 1 after a three-month break for calving season. The department said it will encourage landowners to harvest as early as possible in the season under the assumption that early deterrence will be more effective. Farmers who produce at least $10,000 a year in agricultural goods and suffer chronic damage will qualify for pre-emptive permits.

The department said it will focus on a handful of places where elk are causing damage year-round.

“We’d really like to hit those resident elk groups in agricultural areas,” Yarborough said. “We think we can increase our pressure using lethal and non-lethal techniques to really hit those groups.”

The department also will try to respond to reports of limping elk within seven days and possibly remove elk infected with hoof disease. The department said it and tribes culled five elk suspected of having the disease in the past year.

Skagit County Cattlemen’s Association Vice President Randy Good welcomed the plan, though landowners will need enough kill permits. Fish and Wildlife say there is no set number.

“We need to have multiple permits to put pressure on the elk,” Good said. “We aren’t as concerned about the elk count as getting them off the ag land.”

Tribal representatives say they have tried to help landowners by measures such as installing fences and buying fertilizer for elk-damaged pastures.

“We are working hard on the landscape,” said Tino Villaluz, Swinomish tribe hunting and gathering manager. “We are not a roadblock.”

Between 2003 and 2005, Fish and Wildlife released 98 elk into the hills along the valley to augment the North Cascades herd. At the time, Fish and Wildlife estimated the herd was at a low point of about 425 head, including 125 in the agricultural valley.

The department recently estimated the herd has grown to 1,493 in eastern Skagit County and southern Whatcom County. That’s short of the state goal of 1,700 to 2,000 elk.

Recommended for you