Many property owners with agricultural lands in Skagit and Whatcom counties have experienced elk damage as portions of the North Cascades elk herd move into the valley floor seeking easy forage opportunities. Point Elliott Treaty tribes and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), along with other interested agencies, understand the impact damaged or lost crops have on private landowners and are seeking solutions to solving elk-related damage issues.
However, minimizing elk damage does not have a one-size-fits-all solution.
Last year, the Stillaguamish and Tulalip tribes helped an Acme dairy farm install a three-strand electric fence to keep elk out of the pasture. When the elk jumped through the top two strands, the tribes improved the Coldstream Farm fence by making it five strands. The five-strand fence has successfully deterred the elk from the property and tribal natural resources staff returned in June to help fence an additional pasture of more than 100 acres.
As a result, Coldstream farmer Jeff Rainey planted corn in the fields for the first time.
“You have to train the elk not to cross the electric fence,” Rainey said. “We appreciate the tribes’ help. It gives us more options for this piece of land.”
In the Day Creek neighborhood east of Sedro-Woolley, Stillaguamish wildlife biologist Jennifer Sevigny and tribal enforcement Capt. Bill Hebner, and Tulalip wildlife manager Mike Sevigny met with landowners to discuss options for preventing elk from damaging crops and property.
“We’re experimenting with some non-fencing projects that may offer some good alternatives for others,” said Jennifer Sevigny.
For the first trial, the Stillaguamish Tribe purchased and donated 20 tons of lime to two different landowners in an effort to improve haying capacity in terms of quality and quantity. The increased yield will offset what the elk eat, and farmers may be able to harvest sooner, giving elk less opportunity to forage.
After trying other control measures, lethal and non-lethal, some landowners, including cattle farmers Jim and Frances Carstens, concluded an elk exclusion fence was the only viable option.
“We tried hazing them and working with the (WDFW) master hunter program,” Jim Carstens said. “It keeps the elk away for a short period of time, and then they come back.”
Carstens didn’t have the means to install a fence, even after WDFW supplied the materials. Digging holes for fence posts is the most labor-intensive part of installing elk fences, so the Tulalip Tribes purchased a hydraulic post driver that landowners can share to build fences. Carstens’ fence is being installed with the help of staff from Tulalip, Stillaguamish and Sauk-Suiattle natural resources and WDFW. Once completed, the fence will be 6.5 feet tall, consist of seven strands of high-tensile electric fence, and encompass approximately 146 acres.
“The fence is the ultimate solution for us,” Carstens said. “When the game department came through with materials and the three tribes got together, it helped us immensely on getting the fence up. I’m just extremely grateful. It really allows us to remain in business.”
Property owners might not have to fully enclose their pastures, said Mike Sevigny. “We’ve found that elk enter pastures in certain places. If we block off that access, they don’t tend to find another way in; they find another pasture where they are welcome. Instead of putting up a full fence, we could change the elk’s behavior by putting up a line of fence blocking their entrance.”
“If landowners want to keep elk off of their property, fencing is the most cost-effective and successful method for deterring them,” said Emily Wirtz, wildlife biologist for the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe.
“Some people are willing to put in a fence, but not if it doesn’t work,” said Jason Joseph, natural resources director for Sauk-Suiattle. “They had heard some of their neighbors’ fences hadn’t been effective, and come to find out, they had used a regular cattle fence.”
WDFW and many of the Point Elliott Treaty tribes continue to work with private landowners to use fencing, hazing and compensation measures to solve elk damage problems. The goal is to manage the land so that the elk can continue to thrive on their traditional ranges without causing loss to private landowners.
“One of the concerns we’ve heard from landowners is that ‘if you fence my property, you are just putting my problem on my neighbor,’ ” Mike Sevigny said. “What landowners need to understand is that most groups of elk are already frequenting more than just their property, both public and privately owned.”
Many private landowners in the valley don’t mind elk on their property.
“We feel honored that the elk have chosen to share our land with us,” said Barb Trask, who owns pastures in the Birdsview area and is on the board of Skagit Land Trust. “We are trying to farm in a way that allows us to coexist with the elk. It’s important to take care of the land in this valley in a way that supports wildlife and farming. We consider it part of the cost of doing business.”
“Skagit Land Trust believes elk are a key part of the local ecosystem and our Skagit conservation areas provide valuable elk forage and shelter,” said Michael Kirshenbaum, stewardship director of the conservation organization. “We also recognize that elk cause damage to some private properties and we are fully supportive and thankful for tribal and state efforts to provide assistance to affected landowners, and to work towards a collaborative solution.”
With plenty of elk-tolerant land available for forage and cover, fencing the non-tolerant areas decreases conflict between landowners and elk. Elk fencing has proven to be effective, and is a long-term solution to the elk damage problem. Electric fencing options typically are more cost efficient, take less time to install, can be retrofitted into existing barbed wire or woven wire fences, and are more resistant to flooding. Electric fencing can also be temporary in nature and easily dismantled if necessary.
The Skagit Valley and North Cascades are native habitat that always has been used by elk historically. The meat is a significant source of protein for tribal hunters and their families. The hides, antlers and hooves are used in traditional regalia.
More than 20 years ago, the Nooksack elk population in the North Cascades Mountains was about 1,700 elk. By 2003, the herd had declined to about 300 elk, largely because of degraded and disconnected habitat, as well as overharvest by non-Indian hunters.
Tribal and state wildlife managers agreed to stop hunting the herd in the 1990s, conducted numerous restoration projects and relocated about 100 cow elk from the Mount St. Helens region. Annual population surveys indicate that the herd is showing signs of recovery.