Elk money

Washington state Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, prepares to testify Feb. 15 in Olympia on her proposal to increase compensation to farmers for elk and deer damage.

OLYMPIA — A bill to compensate farmers for elk-damaged pastures only nibbles at the problems faced by eastern Skagit County, Wash., ranchers, the measure’s sponsor said Friday.

Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, proposes to let farmers and ranchers file claims for grass eaten by elk. But the bill would not amend a claims process described by Skagit County rancher Randy Good as “a year of headaches.” It also would not remove one elk from farmland.

“This is just a Band Aid. I understand that,” Eslick said after a House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee hearing. “The goal is to move the elk off the lowlands.”

Dozens of farmers and ranchers report that their crops, pastures, fences, hay bales and irrigation systems are being damaged by a growing number of elk in a long, narrow valley in northwest Washington. Fish and Wildlife and nine Native American treaty tribes co-manage the North Cascades herd.

Beginning about 15 years ago, the department and tribes embarked on enlarging the herd by limiting hunting and importing elk captured near Mount St. Helens. The state and tribes have not come up with an effective plan to keep elk in the hills and from multiplying in the valley.

Farmers can file damage claims with Fish and Wildlife. To be compensated, farmers must sign damage-prevention agreements, open their land to hunters, and submit tax, insurance and business records.

Fish and Wildlife has not paid a claim in eastern Skagit County since 2016, though the county assessor’s office projects that elk cause $1.5 million annually to farmland there.

Besides broadening Fish and Wildlife’s compensation to include pastures and irrigation equipment, Eslick’s legislation, House Bill 1875, would increase the maximum payout to $20,000 from $10,000. The limit on payouts statewide for elk and deer damage would be doubled to $240,000 annually.

Good, who said he had to abandon raising cattle in a field overrun by elk, said the bill won’t help if applying for compensation stays cumbersome.

“It’s not going to do any good,” said Good, who represented the Skagit County Farm Bureau and Skagit County Cattlemen’s Association at the hearing.

Good also said the statewide cap is a fraction of the damage in eastern Skagit County alone.

“The compensation pot will need to be increased dramatically to cover all these damages,” he said.

Fish and Wildlife officials have said previously that the department wants to guard against frivolous claims.

After the hearing, the department’s director, Kelly Susewind, said he’s open to talking about reforming the application process. “It’s of no value if people can’t access it,” he said.

Eslick said she will have more meetings with Fish and Wildlife and work toward reforming the compensation system and moving elk.

She said her proposal to increase compensation will not resolve problems.

“It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s at least something more, and we are trying to help them in every possible way at the moment,” Eslick said.

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