Growing Nooksack elk herd has some neighbors concerned about impacts

An elk buck in the Nooksack herd was counted in 2000 by wildlife biologist Chris Madsen of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
An elk buck in the Nooksack herd was counted in 2000 by wildlife biologist Chris Madsen of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. The Bellingham Herald file

Wildlife biologists, farmers and tribal members may have different perspectives when it comes to elk, but at a meeting Tuesday in Sedro-Woolley representatives of each said it’s important to find a balance between preserving the animals and protecting area communities.

That’s also the message in a draft management plan for the region’s elk that was released July 25. The state Department of Fish & Wildlife is taking public comment on the plan through Sept. 7. When finished, the updated management plan will replace a 2002 plan.

Elk in Skagit and surrounding counties are part of the North Cascades elk herd, also known as the Nooksack herd. It is the smallest and northernmost of 10 recognized herds in the state, according to Fish & Wildlife.

State and area tribes have been working for decades to restore an elk herd in the area – increasing habitat and food sources, relocating animals from other herds and restricting hunting. The herd has reached an estimated 1,600 to 1,900 animals, growing about 5 to 7 percent per year over the past decade, Fish & Wildlife estimates.

With that growth comes concerns from residents in rural areas – where elk have damaged crops, landscaping and fences – and drivers who cross paths with the 400- to 800-pound animals.

The goal of the draft management plan is to bring the herd to a population of about 1,950 animals, manage the herd for hunting opportunities and minimize conflicts.

The herd’s 4,650-square-mile range includes parts of Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish and King counties. An estimated 58 percent of that is public lands, primarily managed by the U.S. Forest Service and state Department of Natural Resources.

From the nearly 2,000 square miles of private property within the range, Fish & Wildlife has paid a collective $67,412 to property owners for elk damage claims received between 2002 and 2014, according to the management plan. Of 17 claims that received payments, 15 were in Skagit County.

About 44 percent of the claims paid – about $30,000 – went to owners of potato crops damaged in 2013 and 2014 in an area between Sedro-Woolley and Hamilton. Property owners in Skagit County also have claimed damages to fruit trees, pastures and feed for livestock.

Hamilton-area beef farmer Randy Good said the amount Fish & Wildlife has paid has not come close to covering the financial impacts some, including he and his wife Eileen Good, have endured due to elk-related damages. He said he wants to see Fish & Wildlife limit the herd’s range, keeping the animals off area farmland and off Highway 20, which borders his property.

The elk herd is primarily concentrated around the south fork of the Nooksack River, in south Whatcom County and north Skagit County, and in areas between Sedro-Woolley and Rockport, according to Fish & Wildlife.

Highway 20 is a busy route that connects Sedro-Woolley and Rockport.

While vehicle collisions with elk are not always reported to Fish & Wildlife or State Patrol, the agencies estimate that incidents have more than doubled in recent years. Fish & Wildlife estimates 20 to 30 elk are killed in collisions on Highway 20 each year.

Shannon Crossen, who lives in the Sedro-Woolley area and previously worked for the California Department of Transportation on wildlife issues, said addressing collisions with elk is the most important issue moving forward so that elk and people can coexist here.