SEDRO-WOOLLEY, Wash. — Vegetable grower Tony Wisdom figures that several years ago his farm walked away from a quarter-million-dollar investment, plus future earnings, because elk were uprooting potatoes and contaminating crops on the 320 acres he leased.
The land was 10 miles from the home farm. Now the elk are showing up on leased land about 4 miles away. Wisdom describes the state wildlife manager as “super empathetic,” but the herd’s migration continues.
“They seem to be going wherever they want,” Wisdom said. “The only solution is to get rid of the elk.”
Keeping elk off farms and ranches in the Upper Skagit Valley in northwest Washington has been a stubborn problem, one that’s emblematic of the proliferation of elk across much of the Northwest. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife managers say they’ve put up fences and hazed elk, including lethal hazing.
Enough complaints persist, however, to make plausible the judgment of Skagit County Cattlemen’s Association Vice President Randy Good: “Fish and Wildlife is a complete flop at managing the elk.”
Fish and Wildlife and the Indian tribes say they are working on new tactics to keep elk off private property, targeting larger “sub groups” of elk rather than a scatter-shot approach to hazing.
Department managers will present details to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission on June 14.
The department is under pressure to perform from more than just farmers.
School superintendents say the elk threaten property and students. Skagit County commissioners are urging action.
“It’s a huge problem and not just for cattlemen. There’s a huge outcry from people who have been affected,” Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt said.
Dahlstedt has proposed that Fish and Wildlife authorize the shooting of 300 elk, a tenfold increase in the number harvested with damage-control permits in the past year.
Dahlstedt said it is time to stop “pussyfooting around.”
“There have been lots of meetings. Everybody talks and nobody wants to hurt anybody’s feelings,” he said. “The only way you’re going to take them off the valley floor is harvesting them.”
The department says more elk could be harvested, but not 300. “It’s not supported by the data, and I don’t think there’s public support for it,” Fish and Wildlife regional director Amy Windrope said. “I think people would come out of their seats.”
Fish and Wildlife estimated in March there were as many as 400 elk in the valley, giving birth to up to 85 calves. The department issued 66 damage-control permits to landowners in the past year, but only 30 elk were shot.
Skagit County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Will Honea said he hopes a new agreement between the county and Fish and Wildlife will increase the success rate.
A landowner with a permit will be able to pick the hunter and charge an access fee. Fish and Wildlife has also made it clear that landowners do not have to open their property to hunters they don’t know.
The arrangement will relieve landowners of the burden of harvesting and butchering an elk, Honea said.
“Shoot, they have work to do,” he said. “I think we have a good plan, and we’ll see what happens.”
Fish and Wildlife will resume issuing permits July 1, after a three-month break for calving season.
The valley elk are part of the North Cascades herd. Fish and Wildlife estimated this year the herd has 1,493 elk in eastern Skagit County and southern Whatcom County, a 19% increase in the past three years but still short of the state’s goal of 1,700 to 2,000 elk.
Fish and Wildlife and tribes grew the herd by importing 98 elk from the Mount St. Helens area between 2003 and 2005. State game managers also imported elk in 1912 and 1946.
Fish and Wildlife says elk have occupied the valley since “time immemorial,” a phrase that links the herd to tribal hunting rights secured in the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty.
Fish and Wildlife has an agreement with nine Point Elliott treaty tribes to co-manage the herd. Members of the Fish and Wildlife commission say they can’t take more elk off the valley floor without the tribes’ consent.
Efforts to obtain comment from tribal representatives for this story were unsuccessful. Stillaguamish Tribe wildlife policy lead Jesse Pecor told the Fish and Wildlife commission in April that a “substantial increase in damage permits on the valley ... would impact treaty rights at a high level.”
“We understand there is an impact to agriculture, and the folks that live in the area. We also feel as though the department and tribes have been working together over the last few years, diligently trying to relieve some of that pressure off the agriculture folks,” he said.
“We believe that we have a method that we’re experimenting with starting this year of changing things up and identifying specific areas of high concern and dealing with them that way rather than just sending out a ton of permits,” Pecor said.
“Currently, the method is to issue a landowner a permit and then send a hunter out anywhere in that area and target any elk, and we’ve seen that is unsuccessful and doesn’t really do anything for the damage complaints.”
$1.4M in losses
In an effort to document the damage, the Skagit County Assessor’s Office has surveyed valley farmers and found elk caused more than $1.4 million in agricultural losses in the past year.
County officials also say the elk are a hazard to motorists. To better document the problem, Fish and Wildlife encourages motorists who hit an elk to report the collision to the state Department of Transportation.
Sedro-Woolley School Superintendent Phil Brockman said he fears a school bus will hit an elk and that children will be hurt.
“Our farmers are bringing the issue to the forefront, and so you start thinking about it, and, yes, we are concerned. It is a safety issue,” he said. “There are some big bulls out there crossing the highway.”
The elk population needs to be reduced, Brockman said. “I like the commissioner’s idea the best.”
Sedro-Woolley school bus driver Kim DeVaney said she put on the brakes hard enough three times this year to send student backpacks hurtling forward. Each time, elk came out onto the road in the early morning.
“You don’t see them until they run out in front of you,” she said.
Farther up the valley, elk come through fences and leave their marks on playing fields, said Concrete School District Superintendent Wayne Barrett.
“There’ll be elk crap where the kids are getting tackled,” he said.
Barrett has been Concrete superintendent for two years. A hunter, Barrett said that at first he thought it was cool to be superintendent of a school district that had elk wondering about. With fences and fields to repair, and young children to protect, he says he’s frustrated now.
“I love the wildlife, but when it gets to where it’s unsafe, Fish and Wildlife has an obligation to manage it, but they don’t want to manage it,” Barrett said. “They need to reduce the numbers, that’s what they need to do.”
The damage done
The problem has been going on long enough for the stories to build up. A bull got gored some years back. A school bus hit an elk sometime ago. Last summer, elk got into a farm and ate 100,000 pounds of blueberries.
“It’s coming to a head because we’re all tired of fixing fences. We have work to do, projects to do,” rancher George Vojkovich said. “We’re tired of it. If our cows were all over the place, they’d be charging us by the month.”
When Fish and Wildlife trucked elk in from Mount St. Helens, it saw the potential for elk damaging farms.
“WDFW will adopt a zero tolerance policy in responding to any damage occurring as a result of elk introductions,” according to the department’s 2002 North Cascades herd plan.
The plan went on:
“This contingency plan prioritizes lethal removal of offending animals as opposed to spending considerable time and expense relocating problem elk that are likely to repeatedly return to damage areas.”
Wisdom, the farmer, said Fish and Wildlife undertaking a campaign to reduce the elk population would not look good, but the job could be turned over to landowners.
“They are imported elk that should never have been here in the first place, and now they’re out of control,” he said. “We’re in a battle, and we have rubber bands.”