Elk damage

Elk gather in a field in Skagit County, Wash. A bill introduced in the Washington Legislature would double the amount of compensation farmers could receive for damage to their property caused by deer or elk.

OLYMPIA — Washington farmers could be compensated for damage to irrigation equipment and pastures by elk and deer under legislation introduced Monday.

Producers already are eligible for payments for ruined food crops. Besides expanding the basis for claims, House Bill 1875 would double the maximum payout to $20,000. The bill would not change an application process that farmers complain is cumbersome and discourages claims.

More compensation would help, but won’t solve problems farmers and ranchers have in eastern Skagit County valleys overrun by elk, said Bill Schmidt, president of the county’s Farm Bureau chapter.

“To me, prevention is the ultimate goal,” he said. “But if it’s taking so long to fix the problem, you have to have more compensation, or you’ll lose more farmers.”

Elk and deer damage farmland across the state. Elk are particularly troublesome in Skagit County, where the Department of Fish and Wildlife and Native Indian tribes trucked elk captured from Mount St. Helens. Over the past 15 years, the herd has grown and migrated from hills onto valley farmland.

Farmers say elk are breaking fences, tearing up hay bales, eating and contaminating crops, breaking sprinklers, and eating livestock forage. The county assessor’s office estimates that elk damage to farms may total $1.5 million a year.

Applying for compensation requires farmers to submit an adjuster’s report, and business, insurance and tax records. and open land to hunters. No farmer in the eastern Skagit County valleys occupied by elk has applied for compensation since 2016, according to Fish and Wildlife.

HB 1875’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Carolyn Eslick, who represents eastern Skagit County, said she’s working on making documenting losses simpler, but hasn’t developed a proposal yet. She also said she wants to get elk back in the hills. “I hear them (farmers) loud and clear,” she said.

Efforts to obtain comment from Fish and Wildlife on Monday were unsuccessful. The department has said previously it is concerned about farmers filing frivolous claims.

Randy Good, vice president of the Skagit County Cattlemen’s Association, said farmers and ranchers have asked for changes to the compensation to allow producers to recover actual losses.

“I’m hoping they’ll get something together,” he said. “So far, that hasn’t happened.”

Eslick’s bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, would require Fish and Wildlife to pay for an adjuster to assess damage. The Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted a rule in 2015 that requires farmers to split the cost with the state.

The bill calls for doubling a pot of money to compensate farmers statewide to $240,000, though lawmakers would have to put the money in the state’s general fund. Dent sponsored a similar bill in 2017, but it did not pass.

The legislation was assigned to the House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

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