Washington county tallying elk damage to farms

Elk graze in a valley in eastern Skagit County, Wash. The county assessor's office is tallying up the damage elk do to farmland in the area.

An elk herd encouraged to grow by Washington wildlife managers is inflicting significant damage to commercial agriculture in eastern Skagit County, according to the county assessor’s office.

Farmers, responding to a survey, report damages ranging from a couple hundred dollars to more than $100,000. The survey is only half done and includes assumptions that could influence the numbers. When it’s done, estimated losses to income-producing farmland could total roughly $1.4 million annually, Assessor Dave Thomas said Tuesday.

“It’s truly an estimate,” he said. “Our concern is the continuing viability of ag use in that part of the county.”

The North Cascades elk herd, also known as the Nooksack elk herd, has been revived in the past 15 years by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and nine Native American tribes. Hunting was curtailed and elk were transported from around Mount St. Helens. As the population approximately doubled in a decade, elk have moved down from the hills to valley farmland.

Farmers and ranchers say the elk have become so comfortable in their fields that hazing them back into the hills or getting a permit from the state to shoot one provides only temporary relief.

So far, 48 out of 57 farmers in eastern Skagit County who have responded to the survey report elk damage. Thirty-six estimated losses totaling $532,122. Twelve farmers reported damage, but did not provide an estimate.

Chief Deputy Assessor Annette DeVoe told county commissioners Aug. 7 that some east county landowners like elk, but full-time farmers have been hit particularly hard by the herd’s resurgence.

“For big farmers, they (the elk) are eating crops and causing significant damage,” she said. “It’s been interesting and eye-opening as far as how it’s affecting the actual market value of properties.”

Farmers can apply for compensation for elk damage by submitting tax, property and insurance records, an adjuster’s report and a list of measures they took to try to prevent the damage. The department received two claims last year for elk damage in the Skagit Valley. One farmer didn’t qualify, and one didn’t complete the paperwork.

Fish and Wildlife Regional Director Amy Windrope said the department is willing to discuss revising the compensation system with farmers. “If they’re identifying barriers, let’s fix them,” she said.

To get elk off farmland, the department has increased hunting, issued kill permits and installed fences. “I don’t disagree with the analysis that more needs to happen,” Windrope said. “I really feel like we’re taking the steps that are going to give us a long-term solution.”

Swinomish tribe hunting and gathering program manager Tino Villaluz said elk damage is a problem.

“We have some serious issues we have to deal with,” he said. “It’s not falling on deaf ears.”

Randy Good, vice president of the Skagit County Cattlemen’s Association, said the number of elk on his land is growing, and some are limping with hoof rot, another concern for cattlemen.

Good said the department should allow hunting year-round on land where the owner gives permission. The assessor’s survey should draw attention to the economic costs of not doing it, he said.

“Putting that information out there puts a new twist on it,” he said.

Thomas sent a letter this month to Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind reporting that several landowners who responded to the survey said they stopped farming, ranching or leasing land because of elk damage.

In one case, landowners twice tried to start a Christmas tree farm, but elk ate the young trees, according to the assessor’s office. The 35 acres were redesignated from farmland to conservation land.

The Skagit elk, as it has before, came up briefly at the Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting Aug. 10 in Olympia. Commissioner Larry Carpenter, a Skagit County resident, said he’s heard a lot about the elk. “I think the situation is out of hand,” he said.

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