MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — Elk are easy to spot against the green backdrop of the Skagit Valley, where much of the resident North Cascades elk herd that has grown to an estimated 1,600 is found.
For farmers in the area – especially those who grow grass for their cattle or to sell to other beef or dairy farms – those elk have become increasingly problematic on their land.
Some Skagit County landowners and officials have deemed the intrusion of elk on private property to be illegal.
Hamilton area beef farmer Randy Good, who is vice president of the Skagit County Cattlemen’s Association, said the state Department of Fish & Wildlife is breaking the law by allowing an increasing elk population to damage crops and homes.
A state mandate for Fish & Wildlife states: “Nothing in this title shall be construed to infringe on the right of a private property owner to control the owner’s private property.”
The Skagit County Board of Commissioners agrees. In a Feb. 16 letter to Fish & Wildlife, the commissioners asked that the agency comply with the law in question “immediately by removing elk off the valley floor … by any means necessary.”
Fish & Wildlife Deputy Director Amy Windrope has publicly recognized the issue.
“We have some statutory obligations as well as provisio language that says we need to address the elk damage issues in the Skagit Valley,” she said during a Fish & Wildlife Commission meeting in April.
Windrope told the Fish & Wildlife Commission she has heard from several landowners affected by elk, including many during the previous damage year, from July 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018.
“The damage issues are continuing. We had over 100 complaints this (damage) year, so we are under a microscope as well as a lot of pressure to resolve this issue,” she said.
Some landowners from along Highway 20 and the Skagit River spoke to the commission on April 14.
“You have a lot of elk up in the hills that are finding out there’s better grass, less predators and it’s kind of a welfare state (in the valley) right now,” Skagit County Farm Bureau President Bill Schmidt said.
Janis Schweitzer, who has had flowers eaten and landscaping trampled by elk, urged the commission to help.
“Some farmers may be out of business, which is really sad, if we don’t do something,” she said.
A CALL TO CULL
Those suffering property damage and financial losses due to elk want the number of animals in the herd reduced.
“There needs to be a culling,” dairy farmer Derek Blanken said while discussing the issue during a rainy day in March.
Some said they believe more hunting should be allowed in the valley and avoided in the forested hills enclosing it.
“I would like to see the agricultural zone between South Skagit Highway and Highway 20 have more of an open season … to try to keep the numbers down on the agricultural land,” Schmidt said. “We need a little more coordination between hunting and farming.”
Cindy Ovenell-Kleinhuizen, who runs the Double O Ranch south of Concrete, said she believes more hunting is needed because for young elk born in the valley, it’s the only home they’ve known and where they are likely to stay.
“The only way to fix it is to eliminate them,” she said.
Eliminating the elk herd, which the state and treaty tribes are tasked with managing and are interested in preserving, is out of the question.
But Fish & Wildlife regional biologist Fenner Yarborough said the state agency recently adopted new hunting regulations that were set in part to reduce property damage.
The new regulations will increase the number of elk from the North Cascades herd that can be killed in the Skagit Valley by 32 animals per hunting season – 16 more for both nontribal and tribal hunters – starting this year.
The new regulations will also add some time for nontribal hunting in January, Yarborough said. Those changes are an effort to encourage the elk into the hills.
“We need them out of the valley and back into the forests,” Windrope said. “For that we have different tools in our toolbox: We have fencing, we have nonlethal hazing and we have hunting – and we need to use them all.”
She said several tribes in the region, including the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, were opposed to the hunting increases, but the state believes some expansion was warranted.
“The science supports us increasing the harvest this year. I think it’s an important step,” Windrope said.
Upper Skagit Indian Tribe Natural Resources Director Scott Schuyler said the tribe, which frequently sees elk on its reservation east of Sedro-Woolley, was not one of those that opposed the new regulations.
He said the Upper Skagit tribe agrees that the growing herd should be able to support increased hunting opportunities.
The Stillaguamish, Sauk-Suiattle and Lummi tribes feel otherwise, according to a March 12 letter to Fish & Wildlife.
“The North Cascades elk herd has been and continues to be critically important to the Point Elliot Treaty tribes and any effort to reduce herd growth … is not only a threat to our culture, tradition, subsistence and religion, it is an erosion of our guaranteed treaty rights,” the letter states.
Windrope said she understands some tribes are concerned about slowing progress to restore the herd, but the effort to push elk out of the valley will benefit everyone.
“It doesn’t do any of us any good to have the elk in the valley on agricultural lands, where the tribes can’t hunt them and we can’t hunt them,” she said.
Perhaps the greatest challenge with the growing elk herd is that the animals will eat just about anything.
From apple and cherry trees to towering Douglas firs, nearly every tree on Schmidt’s property bears scars from hungry elk. He said they’ve eaten apples off trees, broken branches off cedars and rubbed bark off maples.
They will gnaw at the bark of various types of trees, sometimes killing young trees and destroying investments, Schmidt said as he pointed to a young Douglas fir eaten by elk about 30 years before it would have been large enough to harvest.
Larger trees can also be destroyed or lose value.
As elk teeth tear into a tree’s bark, they create an entrance for beetles and fungus, Schmidt said.
He said he’s had to cut down some trees that were weakened at the bases and carve away rotten sections of others that could have been valuable wood.
Potted flowers also attract elk.
Schweitzer said she spent an afternoon chasing elk out of Forest Park Cemetery west of Concrete after finding elk eating blooms out of pots she placed at the graves of her mother and her husband.
Schmidt said he has seen up to 105 elk at a time on his land near Concrete. That’s a lot of animals trampling and chomping their way through 2.5 acres meant to support him through timber sales.
AN INCALCUABLE COST
It’s not uncommon to see dozens of elk in one field.
Ovenell-Kleinhuizen said elk have eaten so much grass out of her fields and hay from her bales that in 2013 she had to purchase feed from elsewhere for the first time since the family ranch was established in the 1940s.
Since 2013, she said she has spent $37,305 on feed.
Several landowners said it’s difficult to calculate exactly how much the damage caused by elk has cost them. When elk graze in a grass field, for example, the impact can be felt for years.
“Every year they graze it down too much, so the next year it comes back slower and it comes back less,” Ovenell-Kleinhuizen said. “It’s hard to put a dollar amount on that.”
She and other landowners said the $192,810 Fish & Wildlife has paid to area farmers since 2002 for elk damage is a fraction of the cost to those affected.
“It’s pittance compared to everybody’s damages,” Schmidt said.
That issue was discussed at the annual east county forum Skagit County officials held in Concrete.
The Skagit County commissioners agree that the costs of elk damage need to be addressed.
“The increasing number of elk on the valley floor … have negative economic impacts far beyond the minimal reimbursements available,” they said in their letter to Fish & Wildlife.
According to the letter, elk damage affects about 30 farms and about 600 other landowners with gardens and orchards.
Derek Blanken and his wife Heidi, who own a dairy farm between Sedro-Woolley and Lyman, said they spent $11,500 in 2017 to buy feed to replace grass eaten by elk.
The Skagit County commissioners said in their letter that they are concerned for livestock farmers who contribute an estimated $50.7 million to the local economy by producing dairy and beef, according to a 2016 report from Washington State University.
A POPULATION OUT OF CONTROL
While the growing elk population has caused trouble for some property owners in Skagit Valley, growth is exactly what the state and tribes wanted to see when they adopted the 2002 management plan for the North Cascades herd.
That plan set a goal to increase the number of elk in the region to 1,950.
Fish & Wildlife Commission Chair Brad Smith acknowledged the growing elk population during an April 13 meeting.
“This population is continuing to rise and it is a continual topic of conversation with our constituents and our co-managers,” he said while a graph was displayed showing the estimated number of elk growing from 800 in 2007 to 1,600 in 2018.
The latest estimate of 1,600 is based on a helicopter survey completed in March.
During a five-day ground survey in March, as many as 439 elk were seen in 14 groups in the Skagit Valley, and another 196 were counted in the Acme Valley north of Sedro-Woolley, according to Fish & Wildlife.
“The elk herd on the valley floor is really as big as it has ever been,” Windrope said.
Several landowners said there was a time when elk sightings were rare and welcome.
“Like everybody else I came here because it’s beautiful, and I treasured my few sightings of elk,” Schweitzer said. “Within the last four years they have increased to the point that they spread out. They’ve raided my orchard, they’ve raided my garden.”
Crop, fence and other property damage have become increasing concerns as the population doubled within the past decade.
“Most of us don’t hate the elk, we just hate the numbers,” Concrete area livestock farmer John Jonasson said.