In a continuing effort to reduce property damage caused by the growing elk herd in the area, wildlife managers are developing a plan they will test this spring.
The plan will combine hunting and hazing — such as making loud noises to spook the animals — and will be concentrated on elk that tend to loiter in the Skagit Valley where they eat feed meant for livestock, break fences and cause other property damage.
Focusing hunting and hazing in areas where landowners have complained of recurring elk damage could help reawaken a natural sense of fear in the herd, state Department of Fish & Wildlife North Puget Sound Regional Director Amy Windrope said.
To date, hunting in damage-prone areas has been allowed for limited, special hunts and in response to landowners filing official damage complaints. Landowners who file complaints may be eligible for a hunting permit to harvest an elk.
“The way that the harvests have been happening on the landscape very much up to this point has been driven by landowner complaints,” Windrope said.
That strategy has apparently encouraged the elk to move from one private property to another, meaning damage complaints continue to spring up throughout the valley as the animals relocate to the next field.
“It’s very much a whack-a-mole issue for us working with the property owners in that way,” Windrope said.
Fish & Wildlife is devising a more proactive approach. The plan aims to change elk behavior by launching more frequent hunting combined with a variety of hazing tactics.
Windrope said the effort will begin March 31 and the activities will take place every few weeks.
“The idea is to pair the taking of an elk with other things so that the elk see that those other things are as bad as being shot,” she said. “Over time, you’re teaching the elk that this space is not a safe space.”
Fish & Wildlife co-manages the elk, known in the region as the North Cascades herd, with area treaty tribes.
More than 100 years ago, wildlife managers began working to restore a stable elk population to the region. In recent years, as the growing population has discovered farm fields offer an easy food supply, co-managers have struggled to address conflicts between elk and property owners.
Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen, who is a dairy farmer in the western part of the county, spoke to the Fish & Wildlife Commission in early February about the impact of the elk that frequent farmland east of Sedro-Woolley.
“There needs to be some way to get the elk out of the valley floor,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair for the property owners who are trying to raise their own livestock there to be feeding the state’s elk.”
The encroachment of elk on farmland is not a problem unique to the Skagit Valley, according to a document recently published by the nonprofit Western Landowners Alliance.
That document, a wildlife guide called “Reducing conflict with grizzly bears, wolves and elk,” includes the herbivores as one of the three primary species that ranchers in the Rockies have struggled to defend their livelihoods against.
“Elk are survivors, they quickly learn where it’s safe to be,” Montana rancher Erik Kalsta says in the guide.
Kalsta and 29 other landowners throughout the West helped compile case studies included in the guide. Those landowners, along with wildlife and land managers, agreed that elk are primarily an issue in valleys and foothills and that permanent fencing, hunting and hazing help reduce the impacts.
Western Landowner Alliance Associate Director Cole Mannix said elk may be a bigger concern than carnivores because of their competition with livestock for food.
In another effort to better manage the North Cascades elk herd and minimize damage to small farms in the Skagit Valley, Fish & Wildlife staff said several treaty tribes are involved in an ongoing effort to collar some of the animals with GPS trackers and will this year establish a database of the results.
“What we’re trying to do is try new things, learn and adapt,” Windrope said.
Windrope said area nonprofits and some private property owners are excited to see the North Cascades herd growing and have set aside some habitat for the elk.
That could create refuges for the elk as they flee the upcoming hunting and hazing effort.
“Managing this herd in this landscape is complex and difficult ... because of the community both wanting the elk and not wanting the elk,” Windrope said.
Co-manager tribes also have an interest in the elk, which were historically an important source of food and materials, and are today a natural resource the tribes have the right to see maintained, according to a federal treaty.
“The tribes have been very, very clear about their value for the elk herd in general as part of their life and history,” Fish & Wildlife’s Mick Cope, deputy assistant director of the wildlife program, said during a Feb. 22 Fish & Wildlife Commission meeting.
That means that while some landowners are urging the agency to hunt all of the elk accustomed to living in the Skagit Valley, that option is not on the table.
“Some of them, what they want is for us to go out and cull the herd, and that’s not really a tool available to us in our toolbox,” Windrope said during the commission meeting.
Between 1912 and 2005, 167 elk were brought to the North Cascades area from Yellowstone National Park, the Yakima area and Mount St. Helens, according to Fish & Wildlife. The agency estimates the population has grown to about 1,600 animals.
Windrope said about 400 of the elk are believed to be concentrated on the valley floor.
In response to an influx in complaints, the agency has since 2013 been increasing the number of hunting permits given to landowners who have endured damage.
While 67 to 98 percent of property owners who filed damage complaints between 2016 and 2018 were awarded permits to hunt elk, 65 percent or fewer of those permits resulted in the successful killing of an animal, according to Fish & Wildlife.
Windrope said that suggests a more targeted approach is needed.
The co-managers will this year continue testing new strategies in hopes of pushing the elk out of the valley and into the hills.