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Print

Elk moving into valleys create problems

December 30, 2009 at 03:04 PM

Skagit Valley Herald

CONCRETE, Wash. (AP) - The state game officer kept his binoculars trained on a tightly clustered group of about 70 elk in a pasture surrounded by several men armed with high-powered bows.

The herd would run from one end of the pasture to the other, led by the ranking elk cow. A few of the animals had arrows embedded in their hides and were bleeding but were still upright and running.

Traffic slowed to a crawl on Highway 20 Saturday as curious motorists passed by the scene on Bill Johnson’s beef ranch five miles west of Concrete.

One elk cow’s entrails were dropping from her belly, the result of a wound possibly inflicted when she didn’t quite clear a barbed wire fence, theorized Worth Allen, an officer with the La Conner unit of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, who was at the scene.

“This is not hunting,” said Allen, slowly shaking his head as the men with bows circled the panicked animals.

As distasteful as he found the scene, Allen acknowledged that the elk kill in Johnson’s pasture is completely legal.

The state wildlife agency declared an elk hunting season in an area roughly bounded by Highways 9 and 20, east to the intersection of 20 and Cape Horn Road.

Only archery hunters were allowed on the field Saturday. Allen said that muzzle-loader hunters were allowed in the area last year, but some proved to be irresponsible by trespassing on farmers’ property or shooting from the highway.

The animals’ visit to Bill Johnson’s shorthorn beef ranch and other area farms has become an annual event, if an annoyance to a man who tries to grow pasture grass for his cattle, not marauding elk.

The group of elk on Johnson’s ranch Saturday are part of what is known as the Nooksack herd, which ranges from the upper Nooksack Valley to the Skagit River. They would be fine if they stayed north of Highway 20, officials said.

However, the elk have become not only a nuisance but a traffic hazard as well, according to game officer Allen.

“There were six collisions on Highway 20 between here and Hoehn Road in the last two weeks,” Allen said.

He was talking about elk-versus-vehicle collisions.

A full-grown elk is a far cry from the dainty image of a “Bambi.”

At 700 to 800 pounds, an elk is four times the weight of a deer, fully capable of inflicting serious damage to vehicles and motorists.

State Patrol Trooper Brandon Lee confirmed there had been several elk-to-vehicle crashes recently but didn’t have the total number immediately available.

Lee said when the incidents are reported to the state Department of Transportation they are simply noted as collisions with animals, which could mean anything from a raccoon to a bear.

Wildlife officials say that as the temperatures drop in the higher elevations of Skagit County, the elk come down to the valley floor to feed and avoid a major predator, the cougar.

Parts of the Nooksack herd have become more or less permanent dwellers of the lower parts of the valley. Part of the attraction is fewer cougars and more pastures in which to feed.

“The elk are here because it’s easier habitat,” Allen said.

He said that new generations of elk that are born in the valley tend to stay around, adding to a population of elk that find good grazing at places like Bill Johnson’s ranch.

Johnson, a jovial man of 74, still works nearly every day at his ranch on Wilde Road, which fronts the south side of Highway 20.

As the last elk carcass was trucked away from his property, Johnson said that shooting elk at close range with a bow was not his idea of hunting. But the Skagit Valley floor herds of elk are not to his liking either.

“I hunted for years on American Ridge (in Eastern Washington),” Johnson said. “But it wasn’t like this.”

Still, Johnson helped the elk hunters remove the heavy carcasses from his property using his tractor bucket to lift the dead animals.

He receives what he calls modest compensation from state Fish and Wildlife every year for the pasture grass eaten by elk. He said the state doesn’t compensate for damage to his fences, some of which was witnessed Saturday.

At one point the lead elk cow ran toward one of Johnson’s wire fences. Other elk followed and a few cleared the five-foot fence, but the hind legs of two got tangled in the wire. Both were able to struggle clear, but the fence was badly damaged.

Finally, the herd ran into a grove of fir trees east of Johnson’s land. State game officials planned to try to drive them back north of Highway 20. There was a plan to stop traffic just for the few minutes it would take.

But when the chase team began to move north into the trees, the elk were gone.

Allen said at least six elk, cows and bulls, were killed Saturday in Johnson’s pasture. He didn’t necessarily regret the kills, he said. But some were messy and caused undue pain to the animals.

Scenes like Saturday’s at the Johnson ranch convince Allen that there is no place on the valley floor for a resident herd of elk.

He said the agency’s effort to boost the Nooksack herd by transferring elk from the Mount St. Helens area was a mistake. He sees no future for elk that become
permanent residents of the valley floor.

“They need to be eliminated,” he said.

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