Farmers across the Wynooche Valley are up in arms over elk that are eating their crops, breaking down their fences and causing untold thousands of dollars in damage.
Despite years of trying to scare the elk away using all sorts of means, the elk keep coming back — and in greater numbers.
Instead of a few elk grazing in the neatly kept hay fields that was the norm decades ago, today, the farmers are dealing with herds that have become semi-domesticated — now using their crop lands as grazing fields. The herds typically rotate through the fields in numbers between 50 and 100 elk. As one herd leaves, another takes its place. Farmers described the elk arrival as the equivalent of a “locust attack,” where virtually any crop in their path is eaten. What isn’t eaten is destroyed, which includes fencing.
Asked for a show of hands from those who had sustained property damage due to the elk herds at the meeting last month, every hand of the 15 families was raised. They say they’ve experienced tens of thousands of dollars in fence damage and untold monetary damage to crops.
“This year alone we lost our winter hay crop a good six weeks,” Owen Shaffner said, standing next to some members of his family.
Sgt. Matt Nixon, with the state Department of Fish & Wildlife’s enforcement division, says he knows the problem well. And he says it’s not a new phenomenon.
“It’s been that age-old conflict,” Nixon said. “I’d say it’s gone on for 50 years. And there’s never really been a concrete fix. The agency has always taken a Band-Aid approach. You have these herds of elk, who have historically wintered in the river bottoms and those have become developed into farms and residences. My whole career of 21 years has been wrestling with elk issues, here, there and everywhere. There’s been nothing exceptional this year with elk damage, except a couple of herds go to areas we haven’t experienced before. But, it’s likely, these herds have been all over the valley at some point.”
Nixon said he feels horrible for the families, who have lost money, crops and sleep over this issue.
“They’re just trying to make a living,” he said.
Last year, many of the 15 families met with state officials and the question of compensation — or the lack of compensation, rather, — was discussed at length.
Sgt. Nixon says that the laws have changed since the 2005 management plan was put in place. The threshold of damage being caused by elk is higher now than it has been.
Scott Harris, a Fish & Wildlife biologist with the Private Lands Wildlife Program in Montesano, says there’s only so much they can do.
The Department is restricted for two reasons. First, there’s the issue of funding, he explained. There are only so many enforcement officers. And, second, there are restrictions in state law, itself.
Without more of a mandate from the state Legislature directing them to thin the herds, they can’t be thinned, Harris said.
So, how many elk are too many?
Harris said there really isn’t an answer. There is no top end.
However, the state has increased the special license issued to area master hunters, but some of the farmers say they haven’t seen any additional kill permits locally.
State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said he’s been following the situation for years. Although the issue is not within his district, as the chairman of the state Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, he is still taking a keen interest in the issue.
“There’s a lot of conflicting values out there right now,” Blake said. “You’ve got some farmers really concerned about crop damage. And you’ve got a hunting club in the area that wants the elk there and is upset on the opening day of elk season when they are on somebody else’s property. I’d like to see them get pushed up into the hills and for this problem to go away. The hunting club folks, they’d like the elk to stay and farmers like Owen Shaffner don’t want them on his property.”
In the Willapa Valley, Blake notes that the state hired elk herders “to walk the elk back into the hills and we’ve had some success with that.”
Previously, he said that Fish & Wildlife had also set a special late season archery hunt “where we could harvest cows and that reduced the population a bit and many of us were upset they didn’t find a way to continue those hunts when I think it could help.”
In South Elma, when there were problems with the elk population, Blake notes that more restrictions were placed on motorized vehicles accessing some of the terrain so that the elk weren’t spooked and stayed put.
“You had an area as walk-in hunting only with not as many vehicles pushing the elk away and making them uncomfortable,” Blake said. “But I’m not sure if that’s an option in this case.”
Blake says he thinks there are also too many cougars in the hills driving the elk down to the valley and that issue should also be addressed.
Nixon says he’s not so sure about the cougar issue, but that’s something he’s heard before.
“Everyone has an opinion,” Nixon said. “I’m not so sure cougars are to blame here when this is an area the elk have been known to graze for decades and decades.”
Sue and Duncan Stone, who live in the Wynooche Valley, say they have been compensated for crop damage caused by the elk herds and Sgt. Nixon went to bat for them.
Sue says they have 400 acres and grow a lot of hay.
“We have hay for our beef cattle and we’re able to keep the cows out but when you have 80 elk come in here, they just mow it all down,” she says.
Duncan says they estimated a loss of 90 tons of hay last year.
“For what we lost and the way they structure the compensation, Matt Nixon worked very hard for us to get what we thought was good compensation,” he says.
However, although crop damage was compensated, damage for fences and to the property was not.
Sue says the state Fish & Wildlife also used to give them cracker shells to fire into the air and scare the elk. But new federal regulations don’t allow cracker shells to be given out anymore, she says.
“The best thing they did was give us these cracker shells, which worked awesome,” she says. “We’d have a big herd out here and we could gently move them by shooting above them. And it just helped a little bit. Everything helped a little bit but they kept coming back. They would move out eventually, but they would always come back, and when they came back, they would damage the fence.”
Duncan points out that there’s always been elk in their fields. But, years ago, the numbers were just a dozen or so with no bulls in the herd.
“But now we’ve had as many as 160 in our field at a time,” he said. “We have gotten nuisance permits in the past to kill an elk … But, with these numbers, if everybody in the valley got a permit, they’d just reproduce just as fast again. There was not a bull in that herd for a number of years and, now, we’re at a point in the valley where two or three herds will merge and will have one herd in one field and one in another and it just takes over everything.”
For the complete story, see the May 16, 2013 edition of The Vidette or visit www.thevidette.com.