Solving the elk problem in east Skagit County
Rep. Dan Kristiansen
Part of being a Washingtonian is an appreciation for the outdoors and wildlife. Each of us can likely recall a time when we encountered a memorable vista or an animal in the wild.
I remember a time when my wife and I were hiking and we heard a rustle in the heavy brush. A few seconds later, a large elk emerged just 30 feet from us. Close to 20 animals, one-after-one, walked in front us – not knowing we were there. We will never forget that feeling.
Elk continue to be an important part of our ecosystem and wildlife landscape. Unfortunately, when their population swells in certain areas, it can be destructive, costly, unhealthy and even dangerous.
In recent history, this is the situation property owners, farmers and drivers in east Skagit County have found themselves in – and the problem is getting worse. In fact, it could spread to the northern part of Snohomish County.
This is a problem the state helped create – and a problem the state must now solve.
You might be wondering, how did we arrive at this situation?
In 2003, the North Cascades elk herd in our state was struggling and estimated at only 300 animals.
That year, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) – without approval from the Legislature – implemented a plan to relocate 41 of these elk from the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area to sites along the South Fork of the Nooksack River.
The number of that herd is estimated at 1,200 today, but WDFW’s population objective is 1,950 animals.
Unfortunately, the good intentions of WDFW have resulted in bad outcomes in east Skagit County. And now the state agency wants the Legislature to pay for the problem.
The problem is not just the number of elk, but where they are choosing to graze in east Skagit County. They are inundating local properties, farmland and roadways – destroying property such as fences, eating grass designated for cattle, defecating on farmland, and making certain roadways such as Highway 20 dangerous at times. They are also threatening our communities’ “grown locally” way of life.
As you would expect, this has left people who have been adversely affected frustrated, scared and financially burdened. I represent many of these people in the state House of Representatives.
To the WDFW’s credit, it is listening to those who have been impacted and held public forums.
The state agency also hired a full-time wildlife conflict specialist recently to work on the issue.
But there is a time to talk – and a time to act. And now is the time to act.
No one is suggesting this is a simple problem. Complex problems require comprehensive solutions.
Our communities need a comprehensive management strategy from WDFW that ensures problem elk are dealt with immediately in the short term, including providing impacted people with more options, and that these elk stay on higher ground in the long run.
There is a clear nexus between the plan implemented by WDFW in 2003 and the problem east Skagit County faces today.
Since the state helped create this problem, it should fairly compensate people who have been hurt financially by these decisions. Funding is in place to help with some of the compensation for those who have been burdened, but we must ensure this process is not too cumbersome or time consuming.
Most importantly, these people need to be assured that current elk problems will never again happen in the future.
WDFW says progress is being made, but the problem is not solved yet. It is the responsibility of the Legislature – and the governor – to hold the state agency accountable.
Our area of the state is blessed with natural beauty.
The intersection of our foothills and fertile farmlands makes us the envy of the state – if not the nation. We just need to make sure this intersection is clear of wildlife problems that threaten people’s property, finances and safety.
Rep. Dan Kristiansen represents the 39th District.