North Cascades elk

TOP PHOTO: Elk gather in a field in eastern Skagit County, Wash.

Farmers and ranchers in Washington’s Skagit County have for years had a problem with elk eating their crops and pastures, and destroying fence and other infrastructure.

The county assessor’s office is conducting a yearlong assessment of elk damage to agriculture. The assessor estimates farmers could claim $1.5 million a year in damages from the ever-increasing herd. The actual number is higher.

That’s a lot of money farmers are paying to feed the state’s elk, particularly when they aren’t able to do much to stop the onslaught.

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.

The elk have thrived and have made their way to private property.

Wildlife managers have only a rough estimate of how many elk are in the area. They say it’s 1,593, plus or minus 716. In other words, the population could be far higher than the state’s population goal of 1,950 elk. They just don’t really know.

And the $1.5 million in damages is just an estimate, too. The assessor made the estimate based on the losses reported by 77 farmers.

The state offers compensation, but the process is so onerous that most people who suffer damage don’t bother filing the exhaustive paperwork necessary to be reimbursed. In fact, the last claim was filed in 2016. Those who do face a $10,000 limit.

That doesn’t always cover it.

This spring the managers of a large blueberry farm in northwest Washington say elk ate between 90,000 and 100,000 pounds of blueberries. At 98 cents a pound, that loss blows through the cap by at least $78,000.

Just about everyone says the situation has gotten out of hand. That’s how the farmers and ranchers feel. So do the wildlife managers at Fish and Wildlife and the tribes.

Fish and Wildlife issues “kill permits” allowing landowners to shoot one elk to curb damage. But only 16 were shot by landowners with the permits in 2018, according to a Fish and Wildlife report.

Farmers aren’t keen about letting hunters they don’t know on their land. But they are open to allowing known hunters on their land, or to culling more of the elk herd themselves.

Wildlife managers, though supporting wider hunting, haven’t endorsed letting property owners take a more active role. That’s a shame. Farmers and ranchers should be able to do more than just feed the king’s deer.

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