OLYMPIA — Lawmakers are considering legislation to double the maximum payout for crops lost to deer and elk and also compensate farmers for damage by the ungulates to fences and irrigation systems.
Instead of $10,000, a Washington farmer could receive up to $20,000 a year under a program administered by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
House Bill 1399 also would raise the damage threshold for filing a claim to $1,500 from $1,000.
Farmers who have worked with WDFW to prevent damage by deer and elk are eligible to file claims. The compensation program also covers commercial crops, pastures and Christmas trees, but it does not pay for damages to other property.
“Our folks have been self-funding damage to fences, irrigation pipes and other property for decades, so if they can get some of those damage costs returned back to them, that’s great,” Washington Farm Bureau Director of Government Relations Tom Davis said.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Moses Lake Republican Tom Dent, said that elk and deer step on and break equipment.
“The ranchers who are feeding and raising these animals, basically, sometimes have great loss to property,” he said. “It’s not unusual to have several thousands of dollars of damage.”
The state sets aside $150,000 annually to settle all claims, though the state has never exceeded that amount, according to an analysis of the bill. The agency said it could not estimate how much more the state would pay out under the bill.
WDFW Game Division Manager Anis Aoude told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee at a recent hearing that the agency supports increasing maximum payouts.
He said raising the damage threshold to $1,500 will limit “frivolous claims.”
The Farm Bureau opposes raising the minimum claim.
“I know there are lots of folks in our membership who would not support raising it to $1,500 because that means they’re self-funding the first $1,500 damage done on their farm or ranch,” Davis said.
He challenged WDFW’s implication that farmers file frivolous claims.
“A lot of people don’t file because it’s an onerous system. It’s too much work. They’d rather just pass,” Davis said.
A farmer must report to WDFW within 72 hours of discovering damage. To then file a claim, a producer must hire an adjuster and submit tax records, business records and insurance records.
“I question whether there are a lot of frivolous claims,” Davis said.
Davis also asked lawmakers to use the bill to overturn a rule change made in 2015 by the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Previously, the state paid for an adjuster to assess crop damage. Now farmers must split the cost with WDFW up to $600. At the time of the rule change, WDFW said splitting the cost would discourage frivolous claims.
Other bills address damage by elk and deer:
• Senate Bill 5078 would require WDFW to meet with landowners about improving the compensation system and report back to the Legislature. The bill also would require WDFW to pay for local emergency responses to vehicles colliding with elk. WDFW estimated that it would cost the department $440,000 a year.
• House Bill 1192 would prohibit WDFW from requiring that landowners allow public hunting on their property as a prerequisite to being compensated for crop damage.