by Kirk Johnson
We can learn from past mistakes and ignore the often unnecessary…calls for drastic measures that could be the demise of the important North Cascades Elk Herd that has always, always lived in the productive Skagit River Valley floor…. Elk are magical. They are the essence of wildness and touch the spirits and souls of many. They have a place in our landscape for so many different reasons. It’s up to all of us to maintain and provide for this magic for future generations.Bill Hebner, Retired Enforcement Captain, Department of Fish and Wildlife
Native Americans from the Skagit Valley and surrounding areas have relied on the native elk population for food and cultural sustenance for thousands of years. When European settlers arrived here, they marveled at the abundant wildlife, including elk, that inhabited the landscape.
Many current residents and visitors experience a thrill when they see a solitary antlered bull or a herd of cow elk grazing in a field near Highway 20 in east Skagit County between Sedro-Woolley and Marblemount.
So why is the Board of Skagit County Commissioners siding with a vocal minority of residents who want the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to employ impractical, expensive, and potentially dangerous measures to eradicate elk from the Skagit Valley floor?
The complexities, challenges, and successes of managing this region’s human-elk interactions were the subject of a Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting in Skagit County in early April. In addition to hearing from WDFW staff and Tribal co-managers, the Fish and Wildlife Commission also took public comments. County Commissioner Ron Wesen and several other County residents who are critical of elk and of WDFW and Tribal co-management were significantly outnumbered by other members of the public who cherish the valley’s elk population and praised efforts to manage human-elk interactions.
The North Cascades Elk Herd
The North Cascades Elk Herd – sometimes also called the Nooksack Elk Herd – is the smallest of ten managed herds in Washington State. It ranges from the Canadian border south to Highway 2 in Snohomish County. The WDFW estimates the herd size at about 1,500 elk, compared to a population goal of 1,700 to 2,000 in the North Cascades Elk Herd Management Plan.
The herd is co-managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and nine Point Elliott Treaty Tribes. These are Native American tribes who under the 1855 Point Elliot Treaty retained rights to fish and hunt on their traditional lands. Together, they manage the herd according to the North Cascades Elk Herd Management Plan, which establishes the following goals:
- Manage elk and their habitat to ensure sustainable populations and a sustainable annual harvest level.
- Manage for a variety of recreational, educational, and aesthetic purposes including hunting, wildlife viewing, photography, scientific study, and cultural and ceremonial uses by Native Americans.
- Minimize property damage and public safety risks associated with elk.
The co-managers have their hands full working to satisfy these diverse goals and interests, especially in the heavily farmed and increasingly populated Skagit Valley.
Upper-Skagit Valley farmers have been some of the most vocal critics of elk and elk management over the years. They complain that elk trample through home gardens and farm fields, eat commercial crops, and damage trees in orchards and tree farms. Elk have been known to break through cattle fences, allowing cattle to escape from their enclosures. Although elk can seem elusive to passersby hoping to catch a glimpse while driving up Highway 20, the North Cascades Elk Management Plan estimates elk are involved in 20 to 30 collisions with cars per year, with those numbers on the upswing since the early 2000s.
Some cattle ranchers also complain that elk are spreading a “hoof-rotting” disease to domestic cattle. The disease, known as treponeme-associated hoof disease (TAHD), was first detected in the North Cascades Elk Herd in 2015. WDFW says there is no research showing that elk spread hoof disease to cattle. Research is ongoing through Washington State University.
The Skagit County Assessor’s office has estimated, based on property-owner surveys, that elk cause an estimated $1.4 million in crop and property damage each year in the Skagit Valley. However, many observers find these unverified estimates to be highly questionable.
The WDFW manages a damage compensation program with funds provided by the State Legislature. The North Cascades Elk Herd Management Plan documents certified landowner damage claims to the WDFW between 2002 and 2016 from Skagit and Whatcom Counties. The total amount of claims from both counties over that 15-year period was $81,424, with an average annual claim total of $5,428. The largest single claim for that period was just under $14,000. More recently, in 2021, the state paid a large berry farm in the Cockerham Island area $90,000, which appears to be the largest claim paid in this area.
These claims reflect estimates provided to WDFW by professional, third-party crop adjusters licensed by the State of Washington and certified by the Federal Crop Insurance Service. Professional crop adjusters have the training and experience to differentiate elk damage from damage caused by other factors, including insects and weather.
Fences Make Good Neighbors
At the Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting, WDFW staff and Tribal co-managers described in great detail their ongoing efforts to reduce elk conflicts with farmers and other landowners.
“We’re thankful we do have sustainable wildlife populations in Skagit County,” said Scott Schuyler, natural resource policy representative with the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. “Our main concern is to ensure tribes’ treaty rights are maintained, but we’re also committed to working with WDFW and others to ensure other concerns are addressed as well.”
“Our community does not come close to meeting the [number of] elk we need, but we believe in working well with our neighboring communities,” agreed Tino Villaluz, wildlife program manager for the Swinomish Tribe. “These are our neighbors. We live and breathe and eat and break bread with these people daily. So, their concerns don’t fall on deaf ears.”
The WDFW employs a team of biologists and conflict specialists to work with property owners to reduce elk conflicts. Specific strategies include non-lethal hazing of elk from problem areas; improving and increasing habitat in upland areas to draw elk away from farmlands; providing seed and fertilizer to farmers to increase crops yields; and providing compensation for documented damages.
“Fencing is a huge part of our program,” explained Fenner Yarborough, regional wildlife program manager for WDFW. “Sometimes we’re called the Department of Fencing in Skagit County.”
Between 2015 and 2023, the WDFW provided $750,000 in fencing materials to private landowners to assist with the construction of 19 miles of elk fencing. This included $300,000 from a cooperative grant obtained by the WDFW and the Stillaguamish Tribe. The fencing materials are provided primarily to help commercial farmers, but WDFW will assist homeowners if funds are available.
Landowners are responsible for building and maintaining the fencing. Several of the tribes, including the Stillaguamish, have provided volunteer assistance in recent years to help with construction.
Tribal staff said landowners they have worked with are appreciative of these efforts, but a few vocal critics seem not to want actual solutions but rather to inflame conflict in hopes of more drastic actions to remove elk from the valley floor.
“With the fencing programs, we’ve had good success, a couple of landowners are really grateful that we got that program up and running,” said Bob Frank, natural resource policy representative with the Lummi Tribe. “It’s really sad that there are a few folks out there, a few landowners, that refuse to participate in that program for reasons unknown to us. They – they just chose not to. It’s kind of baffling actually.”
No to General Hunting Season
One tool not considered feasible to control elk damage is a general hunting season in the Skagit Valley. This was one of two options advocated by the Skagit County Commissioners in an October 2022 letter to the Department of Fish and Wildlife director. The other option was a potentially massive elk trapping and relocation effort that WDFW said would be extremely expensive with no guarantee of ultimate success, as the relocated elk would likely return to the valley floor.
A general hunting season is allowed in some other parts of the North Cascades Elk Herd’s range, but land managers consider it infeasible in the more heavily populated Skagit Valley. They worry that large numbers of hunters descending on the valley would likely result in property damage, trespassing complaints, and public safety concerns including firearms-related injuries and hunters flushing elk onto busy roads.
The WDFW ended general hunting in areas including the Skagit and Acme Valleys (along Highway 9 in Whatcom County) in the late 1990s when the total herd size had dropped to a few hundred elk. The herd has been slowly rebuilding in numbers since then.
The WDFW allows limited elk hunting in the Skagit Valley through several different types of special permits. These include “landowner damage permits” where landowners are authorized to hunt for animals causing repeated property damage or suffering from hoof disease. A limited number of permits are also granted for specialized types of hunting, including archery and muzzleloaders.
Under the Point Elliot Treaty and subsequent court decisions, the tribes have a right to half of the elk harvested each year. That goal is rarely if ever achieved, however, because the state issues dozens of yearly landowner damage permits in addition to regular harvest allocations. Tribal hunters do not routinely participate in these hunts or generally receive any of the harvested elk. In a few cases in the past tribes were donated meat from elk harvested via damage permits, but this is not common.
Tribes are generally limited to hunting on Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other public lands and on larger private ownerships (e.g., timber lands) where they have a formal agreement with the landowner. In these more distant areas, the density of elk is lower than in the Skagit Valley. A key goal for the Tribes is to increase the overall number of elk in the North Cascades Herd as well as to achieve broader geographic distribution over the elk’s historic range.
Tribal hunts have a strong cultural component and often involve Tribal youth. As described in the North Cascades Elk Management Plan:
Elk have been an intrinsic part of Tribal culture for thousands of years and have helped Northwest Indian people survive throughout the centuries by providing a continual source of meat and marrow for sustenance and vitamins. The Tribes use elk for religious purposes, clothing, and drum making.
To this day, elk remain an integral part of traditional ceremonies and are essential for maintaining Tribal culture. Elk hunting meets many ceremonial and subsistence needs. The Tribes have a treaty right to hunt and gather, and practicing this right preserves Tribal culture by protecting and upholding traditions that have been passed down through generations.
“It’s part of our cultural inheritance,” said Tino Villaluz, wildlife program manager for the Swinomish Tribe
“Elk are Magical”
Also speaking at the meeting were a dozen or so individuals and organizations praising the co-managers for their efforts to support and grow the elk population while addressing the concerns of farmers and other property owners.
Bill Hebner was the North Puget Sound enforcement captain for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and supervised wildlife control functions including elk damage complaints in the Skagit Valley until he retired in 2012.
I look back at the species that have been intentionally or unintentionally eliminated from their native habitats for no other reason than their presence wasn’t convenient to humans,” Hebner told the Fish and Wildlife Commission. “We can learn from past mistakes and ignore the often-unnecessary calls for drastic measures that could be the demise of the important North Cascade Elk Herd that has always, always lived in the productive Skagit River Valley floor….
Hebner said elk damage in the Skagit is minimal compared to damage elsewhere in the west. Complaints about elk occur where people refuse to allow space for wildlife and development is approved without regard for fish or wildlife corridors.
Solving people’s complaints about elk damage in the Skagit Valley is critically important, but it’s also complicated,” Hebner said. “It does not mean killing all the elk in the valley floor. It just isn’t that simple. And we can do and should do better than that.
Hebner encouraged the Commission to support goals and objectives in the North Cascades Elk Management Plan, including achieving the population goal.
No matter who you are or what your background is, elk are magical. They are the essence of wildness and touch the spirits and souls of many. They have a place in our landscape for so many different reasons. It’s up to all of us to maintain and provide for this magic for future generations.
Also speaking in support of elk conservation was Regina Wandler, stewardship director for the Skagit Land Trust. The Trust owns or holds conservation easements on many properties in prime Skagit Valley elk habitat.
As outlined in [the] Management Plan, there are many elk-tolerant properties such as those owned by the Trust and other wildlife supporters that can serve as part of a network of wildlife-friendly areas and corridors providing key connectivity from the mountains to the river, not just for elk, but for other wildlife species as well.
These networks can help draw elk off lands where they are not wanted while facilitating their movement and promoting genetic diversity and adaptability to climate change for multiple wildlife species. The Washington Department of Transportation is reportedly considering one or more elk crossings on Highway 20, like the recently built crossing on Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass to reduce wildlife-car collisions.
Wandler also encouraged the County to notify new landowners that they will be living in an area of active wildlife habitat – like the “right to farm” disclosure the County now requires of property owners who move into Skagit County farmlands.
As the meeting concluded, various Fish and Wildlife Commissioners praised WDFW staff and Tribal co-managers for their effective partnerships and their commitment to meeting the goals of the plan, despite the challenges. They asked if there were additional resources the state could provide to help meet the plan’s diverse elk management goals. And they said they appreciated hearing from a broader range of stakeholders than they had heard from in the past.
“Humans and wildlife want to live in the same places,” said Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Melanie Rowland. “I don’t think there is a [permanent] resolution to those conflicts. It sounds like you guys are doing a terrific job of managing the conflict to the best of humans’ ability, which is somewhat limited. There will always be these issues, even if you’re doing a terrific job. So, thank you very much.”
A More Visionary Perspective
On this and other wildlife issues, the Skagit County Commissioners have chosen to channel the views of a small subset of the population they represent. They are advocating an unrealistic, outdated and wildlife-unfriendly set of management actions that does not reflect the Skagit Valley’s growing and increasingly diverse population.
Instead, the Commissioners should learn from the discussion before the Fish and Wildlife Commission and embrace a more visionary perspective that addresses the reasonable needs of local tribes, conservationists, visitors, farmers, and foresters alike – and that affirms the Skagit Valley’s unique environmental and cultural heritage.
Kirk Johnson lives in Mount Vernon and worked as a land use planner for Skagit County for 18 years.
Living In Harmony With Elk
To learn how one upper Skagit Valley farm near Concrete is operating in harmony with elk, bears and other wildlife, read this profile of Sauk Farm by Griffin Berger, the farm’s operations manager. As he explains in the article:
“In 2014 Sauk Farm constructed a little over 6,000 feet of fencing with funding support from the Department of Fish and Wildlife to keep deer and elk out of valuable organic crops. Sauk Farm made the conscious decision to not fence-in the entire property and leave a 35-acre pasture for deer and elk. This helped the wildlife get used to the change by providing them with an alternative location to graze…We hope that this project will serve as an example to other farmers in the North Cascades about ways to coexist with bears and other wildlife. Sauk Farm welcomes all who wish to see the installation to come visit!”