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Farmers in Asotin County search for solutions to elk problems

April 2017
By Trista Crossley


For most Eastern Washington wheat farmers, the pests they have to worry about tend to be small, if not microscopic. For farmers in Asotin County, those pests are coming in on four legs, weighing hundreds of pounds, and the options for dealing with them are limited.

Elk aren’t new to the Cloverland and Anatone ridge areas of Asotin County; they’ve been in the Blue Mountains for decades, and farmers occasionally had problems with them, especially in fields near timber. But for the past six or seven years, farmers have had groups numbering in the hundreds moving through their land and fences, trampling plants and eating acres of canola and other rotational crops. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is the state agency that manages the area’s elk herd and works with farmers when the animals cause problems. Growers say most local WDFW employees understand the issue and are trying to work with them, but frustration levels are rising, and the growers feel not enough is being done.

“They (the local WDFW employees) want to help, I think for the most part, but sometimes the system moves pretty slowly. That’s where frustration comes in,” explained Bruce Petty, a wheat farmer whose family has farmed on Cloverland for more than 130 years. “It’s hard to relate to folks that have never had to deal with this situation what a detriment it is. If you had a raccoon or a rat infestation, you’d call an exterminator or get traps and take care of them. In this scenario, we don’t have that option. When it’s your livelihood, it’s hard not to take it personally and get wound up.”

The problem

The elk generally start descending on Cloverland in large numbers around the first of the year and leave about mid-April, depending on weather. Petty said he doesn’t usually see elk groups with fewer than 50 animals, but groups of 200 to 250 aren’t uncommon. Mark Greene, another farmer on Cloverland, said this past winter, his wife stopped counting at 400 while watching an elk group cross one of their fields.

Just east of Cloverland Ridge, across the George Creek drainage, is Anatone Ridge. The elk start to show up there in April and will linger through August. Brad Forgey, a fifth-generation wheat farmer and cattle rancher on Anatone, said he usually sees the animals in groups as small as 20 and as large as 100.

Elk don’t generally graze on wheat if other crops are available, so most of the damage is done when the animals cross winter wheat fields searching for more desirable forage, such as canola, oats or hay, or linger in one spot. When the ground is frozen, the damage is usually minimal, but on soft, unfrozen ground, a herd of elk can leave a mess.

The WDFW district office that covers Asotin County said that in 2016 they counted approximately 769 elk in the game management unit that includes the area west of Cloverland and Anatone ridges. In 2015 there were 908 and in 2014, there were 989.

The first year Petty had significant elk damage was in 2011.

“A group of about 300 came in and absolutely wrecked a field of bushy, good-looking wheat,” he said. “I about puked when I saw it.”

Winter wheat can recover from a herd of elk passing through, but often suffers lower yields due to thinner stands or an increased susceptibility to disease from plant and/or root damage.

Where elk might pass over wheat as a grazing choice, canola is almost guaranteed to catch their attention. Greene, who took over his uncle’s Cloverland farm in 2006, has been trying to introduce canola into his wheat rotations. He first had extensive canola damage in 2013.

“You would have thought I was out there and rototilled the field. That crop came back, but it didn’t produce what it was capable of,” he said. While wheat might survive being chomped on by elk because the crown is underneath the ground, in canola, the crown is above ground. If the crown is damaged by repeated grazing, the plant usually dies. That’s what happened to one of Greene’s canola fields in 2015, which ended up being almost a total loss. He is worried that the same thing will happen this year in one field that has been repeatedly visited by elk. He won’t know the extent of the damage until it warms up.

For Forgey, his introduction to the destructive power of elk was in 2000 when he lost a field of oats. After several more years of losing oats to the elk, he decided to try something different, alfalfa.

“They love that,” he said. “They would hide in timber during the day, come into the field at night and be gone before light. They pull it (the seedlings) out by the roots and just wipe it out. While doing all of that, they’ll come through a wheat field to get to that choice ground, and you’ll have a 2-foot wide trail of wheat that is down and gone.”

Many farmers rotate wheat with other crops to improve soil, increase yields and mitigate disease. In recent years, the Natural Resources Conservation Service has encouraged farmers to consider cover crops and alternative crops. Petty said he would like to try that, but with the elk problem, it could be a big risk.

“Some of those alternate crops have the potential to be profitable,” he said. “I know some of my neighbors would like to try garbs, but not with elk around. Elk like canola, but they go crazy for garbs. You’d just be setting yourself up.”

Ground compaction, damage to fences and depleted salt feeders are some of the other problems growers have encountered due to large elk groups moving through their fields.

Where did they come from?

In 2005, the WDFW bought out the Schlee Ranch on Smoothing Iron Ridge, just west of Cloverland and Anatone ridges. The Schlee family grew wheat and hay and ran cattle on their ground. When WDFW took over, only a small portion stayed as active farm ground, while most of it went into the Conservation Reserve Program. The department also stopped grazing livestock on it. Forgey pointed to that lack of grazing as one reason for the increased elk presence.

“Grazing and game go hand in hand. The game likes to graze pasture that cows go through,” he said. “Fish and Wildlife doesn’t graze much ground. The grass gets old, the game doesn’t like it, so they seek nicer stuff, and that’s our crops.”

Wolf sightings in the Blue Mountains have been increasing in the past few years, and pressure from predators is another possible reason for the appearance of the elk, said some farmers. Greene recalled a situation from last year when he and the local WDFW enforcement officer tried to scare a herd of elk off Greene’s land, across Asotin Creek and back onto state game land.

“Those animals wouldn’t go,” he said. “It solidified the idea to me that there is something over there. If you read research on wolves, the vast majority of it says wolves and elk won’t commingle. The elk will leave.”

Solutions

In an effort to help mitigate the damage caused by elk, WDFW issues up to two kill permits a year to each landowner in the area. The tags are issued in late June/early July and are good through the following mid-February. If landowners are still having elk problems, they can apply for a depredation tag. While the kill permits don’t require a hunting license or fees, depredation tags do. In addition, a landowner can only use one depredation tag; any others must be used by other people. Last year in Asotin County, 47 kill permits and 8 depredation tags were issued, and 22 were filled. In 2015, 40 were issued and 17 were filled.

“The idea is we will pop a few elk, and they’ll get frightened and go away. To an extent that is correct, but they get used to it,” Petty explained. “What it really does is make them nocturnal as bats. It sounds like it should work, but it doesn’t seem to be totally working. It’s not hurting, but it’s not the answer.”

Greene agreed, saying when he first started using his kill tags, the elk would stay away for a week or 10 days. Now, they might move 100 yards away, but they won’t leave.

For the guys on Anatone Ridge, the kill tags are less useful for another reason. In their area, the elk are around during the hottest part of the summer, which makes it much more work to kill and dress a 500 pound animal.

“Nobody wants to harvest an elk when it is 100 degrees. We just haze them,” Forgey explained. He added that in the last few years, his tags have gone unfilled. “On one hand, they (WDFW) are saying that this is my compensation, but I haven’t been compensated for four or five years.”

The local WDFW employee who helps manage conflicts between wildlife and landowners acknowledged that in harsh winters, there are problems with elk damaging crops. He explained that while elk usually respond to a member of their herd getting shot by running off, hunger can override that instinct.

Crop insurance can kick in to help a producer who has a loss due to wildlife damage, as it is one of the perils covered in a standard policy, but the damage is tallied at harvest by comparing the yield to a producer’s production guarantee. If a field is damaged early enough in the year, and an adjustor determines the loss qualifies, a farmer can use crop insurance to cover replanting costs. Crop insurance doesn’t cover damage to fences.

“Usually the losses that you take from elk aren’t enough to trigger crop insurance, so if you lose 10 percent of your field, it won’t trigger crop insurance, but it lowers your bushel average for next year, and you’ve lost that grain. WDFW likes to tell the public that we are insured, but we really aren’t. Farmers don’t like to have to use our insurance,” Forgey said.

Farmers can also file an insurance claim with WDFW, but the damages have to be at least $1,000, and it only covers crops, not fences. Damages are also capped at $10,000 (with some exceptions), and claims are designed to fill in gaps left by a farmer’s federal crop insurance policy. Petty said the process of filing a WDFW claim is tedious and time consuming, and there has been confusion in the past about the ability to file a claim if a kill tag has been accepted.

Other solutions the farmers wish WDFW would consider include:

• Re-examine how WDFW manages state lands and consider allowing grazing to happen on some of it. In Asotin County alone, the state owns nearly 10 percent of the county’s land.
• Consider growing hay on the former Schlee Ranch and feeding it to the elk in the winter.

WDFW has been experimenting with planting about 200 acres of canola and other crops on Smoothing Iron Ridge in an attempt to entice the elk to stay put, but the longer the snow lingers, the more likely the elk are to venture onto farmland. The district also tried a pilot grazing program in the mid-2000s, but it was quickly shut down by environmental groups. Other ideas, such as feeding the elk in the winter, building an eight-foot tall fence between game land and private property or hiring a seasonal employee whose job it would be to haze elk during the winter have all been discussed. As in most cases, however, funding is a major problem.

To those who would suggest that it’s an honor to have wildlife on one’s land, that depends on one’s perspective.

“It comes down to the fact that what we produce is how we make a living, buy groceries, pay taxes, etc. That’s how we exist, and when that number gets smaller because of damage, that affects our whole operation,” Greene said. “It feels a little like we are between a rock and a hard place.”

For Forgey, there is no easy answer to the elk issue.

“WDFW hasn’t come up with very satisfactory ways to compensate us for our losses, and you can’t seem to hold anybody accountable. Having said that, the local people in our office do what they can. It’s Olympia that we are butting heads with,” he said.

To read the response from WDFW, click here.