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Too many elk? Some ranchers struggle as state works to find solutions

SKAGIT COUNTY, Wash. -- Drive the Cascade foothills from Monroe to the Canadian border and you could spot them.

Elk.

People passing through stop to take pictures of the massive herds. Admire their antlers, marvel at their haunches.

But many in Snohomish and Skagit counties say the elk are a threat to a way of life.

"It is compromising agriculture for 80 farms registered for elk damage from Sedro Woolley up to Concrete," said Skagit River Ranch owner George Vojkovich.

Elk vs. farmland

Vojkovich has farmed his 700 acres next to the Skagit River for 22 years. At its peak, he managed about 600 cows.

He uses the land to grow grass for his cows to eat in the spring, summer and fall. Over the winter, he buys enough supplemental hay until his cows get back on the grass.

Hay bales damaged by elk.

But about 10 or 15 years ago, he says, elk came down from the hills.

"The problems are first overgrazing," he said. "The elk graze the grass down to nubbins."

Since the elk population has grown, the Skagit River Ranch has had trouble producing enough grass to self sustain. Vojkovich says he's cut his cattle down to about 250 cows. Instead of feeding cows grass for a majority of the year, about half of the year he needs purchased hay.

This costs the farm around $25,000 extra each year, he says.

It's not just the grass. The elk eat into hay bales, knock down fencing. They allegedly bring hoof rot and other diseases onto the grassland. Cattle can even disappear or be scared away, he says.

"I've lost three bulls," Vojkovich said. "That's $21,000 flat out."

Ranchers like Vojkovich say their scared cattle will also get loose and wander onto a nearby roadway due to holes elk cause in the fencing. If the cows are hit by a car, the rancher is liable.

"My field down the road, I can't even put cows out there in the winter," Vojkovich said. "I'm out there chasing the damn things. It's a lot of labor in fence repair."

The state helping

Despite some claims by ranchers, the Washington State Department of Wildlife and many local tribes say the elk have a long history in the area.

"The elk since time immemorial have used this valley and the area around this valley," said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Region 4 Director Amy Windrope.

There are around 1,600 elk in the North Cascades Elk Herd. Between 300 and 500 of those elk live in the Skagit Valley floor.

Elk are a native species. But it's understandable why some farmers say they never really saw them until about 20 or 30 years ago. They were hunted out of the area in the early 20th Century. Elk have been repatriated starting in 1912. The last repatriation effort was in the early 2000s, when 98 elk were moved from Mount St. Helens.

WDFW has a goal of around 1,900 elk in the North Cascade herd. The state recognizes the need to protect farmers, Windrope said, and has come up with a variety of ways to try to push elk out of the valley.

"Our challenge is to make sure we protect the farmers in the valley from incursions on elk," Windrope said.

WDFW is working with farmers and tribal members to "haze" the valley elk, so they don't think the valley is a safe place to be. The state hands out cracker guns to farmers to make noise. They have automatic sensors that beep loudly when an elk walks buy. They have even partnered with native tribes to bring big propane noisemakers that boom when anything walks by.

All in the hope of scaring the elk.

"Our goal is to instill an ecology of fear," Windrope said.

Along with noisemakers, the state has put up more than 1,500 feet of fence line. They've given out damage permits to the farmers. They've hired additional staff. WDFW is working hard to protect both the farmers, Windrope said, and the elk.

"There will be elk on the valley floor," Windrope said. "We just need to find a way to make it work."

Is enough being done?

Some ranchers like Vojkovich say noisemakers sound like a good idea, until you see them in practice. After one or two toots of a horn the elk become accustomed.

"The elk are getting used to being hazed off the land," he said. "They don't even run."

Vojkovich and some from the Skagit County Farm Bureau say the state needs to up the hunts on elk to remove them from the valley permanently.

"We have friends or people that want meat," Vojkovich said.

The state has increased the number of kill permits provided to landowners who see damage, but it is hesitant to bring elk numbers too far down.

The state is also hesitant to transport elk back to the mountainside, afraid to introduce hoof rot into populations that don't have it. Bringing apex predators to the area to take care of the elk has its own set of problems.

The state says conflicts such as this one are not new in the history of the state. Anytime there's the meeting between wilderness and humans, a balance is needed. Ranchers need to be able to feed their cattle and the elk need to live in their native ecosystem.

"We work at the interface of wilderness and humans," Windrope said. "This is an ecosystem that is complex and dynamic."

A complex and dynamic ecosystem is one thing, Vojkovich says. But ranchers have to be a critical part.

"It's got to be done now," Windrope said. "We just can't afford it. We're going to be out of business."

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