LA GRANDE, Ore. — Large numbers of elk are causing extensive damage to fields and crops in northeast Oregon following an exceptionally snowy winter.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reports more than 4,000 elk have moved onto farms between Pendleton and Pilot Rock, another 2,000 at the north end of Umatilla County and 1,700 in the Grande Ronde Valley across the Blue Mountains in Union County.
Heavy snow blanketed the region in February and March, making conditions difficult for big game. Without available forage in the mountains, the animals instead gather on the valley floor in search of food, which is predominately developed for agriculture.
Jon Paustian, wildlife habitat biologist for ODFW’s Northeast Region, said this year has been particularly challenging.
“There isn’t anywhere for them to go that has food,” Paustian said. “It’s just not conditions they’re going to sit tight in.”
Wildlife officials use 4-wheelers and snowmobiles to chase elk off private property, though with herds this size Paustian said they are only going to go where they want to go. He said producers have been “extremely tolerant” of the animals given the situation.
Farmers say they are struggling with the elk trampling their fields, damaging fences and eating valuable hay stacks.
Tim Wallender, who farms 1,800 acres between La Grande and Union, said the elk managed to eat $2,500 of his alfalfa.
Worse than that, he said, is the hoof traffic over his wheat and pea fields, pockmarking soil and leaving behind a muddy mess.
“I just don’t want the elk here,” Wallender said. “From a producer’s standpoint, it’s private property. They’re the state’s animals. We’re not supposed to feed the animals.”
The situation has gotten to the point where local and state officials are now getting involved.
Union County Commissioner Paul Anderes said he has received phone calls, emails and office visits from residents about elk damage since early January, and is working with ODFW to come up with possible solutions.
“This has certainly been front and center on my plate,” Anderes said. “We are trying all that we can to figure out a viable solution.”
Anderes recently testified in support of House Bill 3227, which would create an “excessive elk damage pilot program” for certain areas around the state, including Umatilla and Union counties. The bill is co-sponsored by state Rep. Greg Barreto, R-Cove, and Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and has generated controversy among hunters who claim the program would allow for “senseless killing” of elk.
Wallender said he believes part of the answer is to set up feeding stations for elk on public property at the west end of the valley, including one at the Mount Emily Recreation Area.
“That’s my consensus, from the people I’ve talked to,” Wallender said. “The best solution is to feed them.”
Paustian said ODFW is not interested in feeding the elk for a number of reasons, and it is never healthy to congregate that many animals together because of disease concerns alone. He does, however, understand the community’s frustration.
The agency does have a number of tools at its disposal, including hazing, controlled hunts and elk damage tags, which are handled on a case-by-case basis.
“I don’t know that there’s a blanket solution that is going to address this,” Paustian said.
Anderes said there is no question the elk are causing economic damage, and in some cases are disrupting normal farm operations in the valley.
“There are very few producers that aren’t affected in one way or another by the number of elk, and length of time they are on the valley floor,” Anderes said. “It becomes a private property rights issue.”