Upper Skagit Valley landowners in northwest Washington are harvesting elk at a faster pace than last year to reduce damage to farmland, according to a state Fish and Wildlife official.
Since July 1, landowners or their hand-picked hunters have shot 22 elk, compared to 15 at this time last year. The uptick comes after Fish and Wildlife said last spring it was OK for farmers to charge hunters a fee for coming onto their land to fill a kill permit.
Wildlife conflict manager Scott Whitman, who issues the permits, said nothing resembling a commercial trade has developed. "That would be my concern, and I don't see that," he said. "I don't think (the policy) has made any considerable change from my standpoint."
Farmers in Skagit County have complained for years about elk-damaged fences, pastures and crops. The Skagit County assessor surveyed producers and figured that elk do roughly $1.4 million worth of damage annually.
Fish and Wildlife issues kill permits to farmers to scare elk away. The shootings are not intended to reduce the overall size of the region's North Cascades elk herd.
The department will issue permits until March 31, before breaking for calving season. Landowners harvested 30 elk during the 2018-19 damage-control season. The season before that, landowners shot 16 elk to control damage.
Youth, senior and disabled hunters, as well as muzzleloaders and bow hunters, have also harvested several more elk.
Fish and Wildlife regional wildlife manager Fenner Yarborough said the pace of the harvest this year has not alarmed the department. In fact, the department has issued 58 kill permits to landowners so far, so most have not been used yet.
"If you have a permit, use it," Yarborough said. "It helps you and it helps your neighbor."
Whether it's the increase in landowner harvest or some other reason, such as the weather, elk seem to be fewer in the valley, Whitman said. "I know something has changed," he said. "The elk are harder to get, from my perspective."
Skagit County livestock producer John Jonasson said elk remain a continuing problem for him. "There are not less elk. There are more elk," he said in an email.
"We chase elk off the hay field about once a week. The elk become nocturnal for a time after being chased off fields a number of times," Jonasson said.
The state co-manages the herd with nine Indian tribes. Swinomish tribe hunting and gathering manager Tino Villaluz said tribes are working to get elk off farmland, including by helping with special hunts.
"It was a considerably tougher hunt, while a couple of years ago, they were a slam dunk," he said. "I'm a big advocate of long-term herd growth, but at the same time, (the valley) is a community, not a zoo.
"The reality is we're working our butts off," he said.
Randy Good, who has organized tours to show policymakers the damage caused by elk, said he's photographed elk coming into his pasture at night, frustrating day-time hunting.
Too few elk are being shot to make a difference, said Good, vice president of the Skagit County Cattlemen's Association. "That doesn't do a thing. It's a flop," he said. "Nothing has been accomplished."
Yarborough agreed elk may be adjusting to daytime hunting pressure. "When feeling pressure, they'll change their behavior."
As Skagit County deputy prosecutor, Will Honea last spring drafted a resolution passed by county commissioners calling on Fish and Wildlife to remove more elk. He said believes the kill permits have helped, but that the state, tribes and landowners still need to work out a better plan.
"How we manage them on the valley floor really hasn't been figured out," Honea said.