Black Angus cattle slowly cropped grass and chewed their cuds on a sprawling green expansive farm east of Sedro-Woolley.
It’s calving season, and the Carstens keep a close eye on their herd. They and other farmers in the area say marauding hordes of elk are invading their fields, knocking down fences, scattering their animals and nearly eating them out of house and home.
Some elk herds number more than 100. Overall, the estimated 1,000 elk in the Nooksack herd range from Whatcom County to Darrington — and state Department of Fish and Wildlife officials have said they want to nearly double that number to 1,900.
The proposal has some farmers seeing red as state Fish and Wildlife and the Native American tribes co-manage the elk population.
The disagreements here are familiar for Skagit Valley residents who want to preserve their way of life without government interference or takings of their property. Many farmers say they are subsidizing the elk, and Fish and Wildlife is doing little to help.
A money problem
Frances Carstens and her husband, Jim, raise organic, free-range Angus cattle on their ranch near Concrete. During a recent afternoon, cows grazed pastures in the light afternoon mist. Snow covered the nearby foothills. The scene was calm, and Frances said the elk had not been back for 10 days.
That suddenly changed.
The Carstens said a herd of 63 elk crashed through their fences and mixed a herd of cows and calves with other animals. Frances Carstens said she’s fed up with Fish and Wildlife for letting the elk roam unabated in the valley.
“If they want the elk in that situation, they need to supply the money for fencing to keep them off,” she said.
But that’s not likely to happen without more money from the state Legislature.
“The (department’s) mantra is ‘We don’t have enough money,’” Jim Carstens said. “Well, we don’t either. If they don’t have enough money, why is it our responsibility to take care of the elk?”
The influx of elk, especially in the past year, has made the Carstens and other farmers rethink their business model. The Carstens say they will have to fence their 175-acre farm and hundreds of other acres of leased land with an 8-foot, elk-proof fence. Such fencing can cost thousands of dollars — too much for most farmers.
Frances Carstens said she isn’t sure what will happen to farming in the upper Skagit River valley if they are forced out of business.
“Nobody is going to farm this place,” she said. “… It’s expensive to have a cattle business. No potato farmer is going to put up with the elk rampaging through, and farming up here will be done. Sometimes I wonder if that’s not the agenda.”
While some farmers say the elk are not native to the area, Wildlife officials and the Upper Skagit Tribe beg to differ.
Scott Schuyler, natural resources policy representative for the Upper Skagit, said elk have been here for thousands of years.
The Upper Skagit tribe has long been a subsistence culture, Schuyler said. The elk and salmon sustain them throughout the year, and in some ways, the elk are an indicator species for the health of the environment.
“We want to see a healthy, viable population for all species,” he said. “The question that people have to ask themselves is what would Skagit County be without the wildlife? The wildlife were here and hopefully will continue to be here.”
But the tribe is not turning a deaf ear to farmers’ concerns, he said. He said the tribe wants to work with Wildlife to come up with a solution that’s agreeable to farmers and the tribe.
“From our standpoint, the best thing we can do is improve their forage areas in the woods north of the valley so they will stay up there,” Schuyler said. “When they get hungry, they will go for food, and they like the highest-quality forage that they can get their hooves on.
“We want this to work for everybody.”
For some farmers, the problem has persisted for years. But several say now, like never before, the elk are traveling south of Highway 20 into the lush green fields next to the Skagit River.
“The elk have now found out that potatoes taste pretty good,” said farmer Jim Hinton, who testified before Skagit County commissioners last month. “They are welfare elk.”
Elk will go anywhere, farmers say, and only the strongest and highest fences can keep a determined herd out. Some elk have even taken up residence in the area around the Concrete Municipal Airport, forcing Town Councilman Jack Mears to chase them off in his pickup truck.
“They’re all over the place when they come up,” Mears said. “… They don’t have business in the airport. We don’t want them. That could be a dangerous situation.”
Right now the east-to-west runway is fenced only on the north side. The south side borders a wooded area.
“They’re a pain,” Mears said. “I don’t know. Of course, the environmentalists, they want to have all of these animals come back, including the bear and the wolves. But we live here now, and people don’t like what they’re seeing.”
Man vs. wild
Driving east on a rainy morning, Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Rich Phillips said elk were once plentiful in the valley. They are part of what is called the Nooksack herd, a grouping of elk loosely defined from the south fork of the Nooksack river, east to Concrete and south to Darrington.
Nearly 1,500 animals made up the herd back in the 1980s, but Phillips said a combination of habitat destruction, land-use changes and poaching made the population plummet to around 200 animals.
“People were pretty happy to see an elk or a herd of elk, but you didn’t have a huge population, and you didn’t have huge damage issues,” Phillips said.
About 15 years ago, the state and Native American tribes came together to restrict hunting with the aim of increasing the herd. Phillips called that effort “wildly successful.”
But the population increase means more elk-human conflicts. Where elk used to stay north of Burmaster Road, they now cross south into the valley bottom and even move across the Skagit River to farms in the south.
“We have a lot more hobby farms, organic farms and vineyards,” Phillips said. “We have a tremendous number of people living on 5-acre parcels, and this elk herd has increased. The social tolerance for damage has gone way down.”
Farmers here tend to grow hay and silage to feed their cattle.
Ronnie Rex runs one of four dairy cow operations east of Sedro-Woolley. Rex said one day he mowed a field of 2-foot-high grass; the next day, it was all gone.
“The elk had got it,” Rex said. “It should have been a good crop. We’ve been beat up so many times.”
And though there is a plentiful elk population south of Highway 20, elk hunting is not allowed there because of the proximity to houses, Phillips said. A general bow hunting season was allowed in 2009 in an area between Highway 9 and Highway 20 and east to the intersection of 20 and Cape Horn Road. The hunt was an attempt to keep elk out of human-occupied lands in eastern Skagit County.
But the hunt went terribly wrong, with inexperienced bow hunters shooting dozens of arrows into the panicked herd. Neighbors called the hunt a “testosterone-poisoned circus.” Wildlife then announced an emergency closure of the hunting season and haven’t opened it since.
Hunting is allowed there now only by master hunters who are called in to cull an animal from a problem herd, Phillips said. Landowners also have the option of requesting a kill permit after they have sustained damage from elk.
“It’s restitution for the damage that they’ve incurred,” Phillips said of the kill permits. “When they get that (kill permit), they sign a document that they’re not going to get money for fencing or restitution.”
County Commissioner Sharon Dillon, who travels once a week to Concrete to meet with residents in an office there, said she saw more elk last year than in previous years in her drive to the town.
“I just love them. They are beautiful animals,” she said, then paused. “But I completely understand the farmers’ point of view.”
Adult elk can weigh between 520 pounds to 840 pounds. The danger the large animals pose to drivers on Highway 20 is something Dillon thinks of often.
“It could be the loss of a life of a person, as much as I believe they are beautiful animals and they are God’s creatures,” Dillon said. “To cause a death is too sad.”
There were at least 50 vehicle collisions last year along Highway 20, according to agencies that tried to tally the number.The agency’s own draft report says the number of roadkill elk has more than doubled from 2001 to 2011, presenting a “significant safety issue.”
Dave Ware, game division manager for Fish and Wildlife, said Thursday the plan for the elk population is still a draft and subject to change.
“We know we can’t increase the herd until we can address the issues in the Skagit River bottoms,” Ware said.
But first, state lawmakers need to provide money, Ware said.
Fish and Wildlife has money in an account that hunters pay into when they sign up for multiseason hunts. That’s when a hunter can hunt deer in an area across bow, muzzleloader and modern firearm seasons by paying an extra fee.
Those fees amount to between $200,000 and $300,000 per year, and Fish and Wildlife wants to see that money used for what Ware calls the “wildlife conflict program.” That can only be done with the Legislature’s blessing, he said.
The department would still allow master hunters kill permits, as well as property owners who want to deal with the troublesome animals. Ware said those programs would be consolidated under “conflict specialists” who would hand out permits. That job is currently handled by field enforcement officers.
Ware said he also would encourage the creation of a local “working group” that discusses successful methods for managing elk.
Other programs could include planting “lure crops” to tempt elk away from farmers’ fields. The current management plan calls for action sometime after 2014.
Last month, farmers traveled to Olympia to present their case to state Sen. Kirk Pearson, who represents the 39th Legislative District.
They told Pearson they felt their land was being taken over by the elk.
“Our land is our land and should not be available for public or tribal use or abuse,” Jim Carstens said. “Even with the master hunters and everything else, we feel like we’re becoming a nonprofit hunting club.”
After the hearing, Pearson said the farmers don’t hate the elk, they just want Fish and Wildlife to manage them and keep them out of their fields.
“The problem is, we have a management problem,” Pearson said.
Another draft of the elk management plan is due out within the next couple of months, Ware said.