In the latest attempt to address conflict between rural residents and a growing elk herd in east Skagit County, state and tribal wildlife co-managers are working through a new "action plan." 

The plan includes providing farmers who have frequently sustained damage to fences and crops in recent years with permits to kill elk, using GPS collars to determine where members of the herd go throughout the year and footing the bill for more fencing meant to keep the animals off farmland and school property.

Those efforts and the need for them were discussed June 14 at a meeting of the state Department of Fish & Wildlife Commission.

Several Skagit County residents spoke during the meeting's public comment period, highlighting safety issues with elk crossing Highway 20 and the herd's impact to farmers.

At issue is that because elk were historically part of the landscape, the state and tribes have worked for about 100 years to restore a population to the North Cascade region, but did not intend for the elk to affect the region's farmers.

"Elk are part of the ecosystem and we must protect the working lands of the Skagit Valley," Fish & Wildlife North Puget Sound Regional Director Amy Windrope said of the need to strike a balance.

State, tribal and Skagit County representatives agreed that damage to agriculture — one of the county's major industries and the livelihood for many rural residents — has to be curbed.

The new plan aims to encourage the elk off of the valley floor where they eat and lounge in agricultural fields, and cause collisions with vehicles on Highway 20.

Of particular interest during the commission meeting was the introduction of preemptive, or advanced, damage permits that authorize property owners to kill elk on their land or to allow hunters to do so.

Fish & Wildlife Regional Wildlife Program Manager Fenner Yarborough said the agency issued nine of those damage permits last week to farmers in Skagit and Whatcom counties. The permits can be used between July 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020.

Those permits follow efforts in March through the plan to scare elk off the valley floor with nighttime hazing and daytime hunting between Sedro-Woolley and Hamilton. 

Yarborough said Fish & Wildlife staff spent several evenings locating elk and startling them with spotlights and noise from what are called cracker shells — ammunition-free shotgun shells that fire off loud cracking sounds.

Hunters also harvested 11 elk from the herd throughout March.

The action plan isn't all about hunting, though.

Other elements of the plan include completing a mapping project with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and using a now simplified damage claim form for impacted property owners.

Fish & Wildlife also has $200,000 available for fencing projects to prevent elk from accessing property in Skagit County and the Acme Valley in Whatcom County.

Yarborough said that funding comes after the state agency and the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians spent $300,000 in recent years on fencing and other ways to deter elk.

Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen and Skagit County Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Will Honea represented local government at the recent Fish & Wildlife Commission meeting.

Honea said the county supports Fish & Wildlife's latest plan, particularly the preemptive damage permits provided to qualifying landowners.

"We think this is a good approach; It's a good start," he said.

Representatives of the Swinomish, Stillaguamish and Lummi tribes also spoke at the meeting, saying they don't want to see farmers hurt by the elk, but that the animals are culturally important to the tribes.

"We understand the impacts to the agriculture folks and we sympathize with them," Jesse Pecor of the Stillaguamish tribe said. "It's their way of life, farming. Our way of life revolves around the culture of hunting and harvesting and living in collaboration with the animals on the landscape."

Frank Bob, natural resources policy representative of the Lummi Indian Nation, explained the tribe's deep connection with the elk.

"Our people have relied on the elk for as long as I can remember," he said. "The hunters that we have out in the hills hunting today were shown those areas by their elders."

For the tribes, harvested elk have traditionally provided not only meat, but also materials for clothing and drums, and items for ceremonial purposes.

"Every part of the animal that we take was used in some form or another," Bob said. "What we did not use, we left in the woods for the other animals."

Shawn Yanity of the Stillaguamish tribe also spoke to a spiritual connection with the elk.

"So many parts of that animal sustains our culture ... they're in our stories, they're in our songs, they are part of our ceremonies," he said. "Not being able to have elk (meat) for a funeral or a naming ... is like asking the Catholics not to have wine or bread in communion."

Fish & Wildlife Commission Chairman Larry Carpenter, who lives in Skagit County, said after hearing from tribes, county officials, county residents and members of the Washington Cattlemen's Association that he's glad to be seeing progress toward addressing conflict with elk, and hopes the co-managers can continue fine-tuning management of the herd and the way it interacts with rural residents.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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