Tribes, State Help Landowners Minimize Elk Damage

Tulalip tribal staff build a five-strand electric fence to keep elk out of a planted corn field.
Tulalip tribal staff build a five-strand electric fence to keep elk out of a planted corn field.


By Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission


Many property owners with agricultural lands in Skagit and Whatcom counties have experienced elk damage as portions of the North Cascades elk herd move into the valley floor seeking easy forage opportunities. Point Elliott Treaty tribes and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), along with other interested agencies, understand the impact damaged or lost crops have on private landowners and are seeking solutions to solving elk-related damage issues.

However, minimizing elk damage does not have a one-size-fits-all solution.

Last year, the Stillaguamish and Tulalip tribes helped an Acme dairy farm install a three-strand electric fence to keep elk out of the pasture. When the elk jumped through the top two strands, the tribes improved the Coldstream Farm fence by making it five strands. The five-strand fence has successfully deterred the elk from the property and tribal natural resources staff returned in June to help fence an additional pasture of more than 100 acres.

As a result, Coldstream farmer Jeff Rainey planted corn in the fields for the first time.

“You have to train the elk not to cross the electric fence,” Rainey said. “We appreciate the tribes’ help. It gives us more options for this piece of land.”

In the Day Creek neighborhood east of Sedro-Woolley, Stillaguamish wildlife biologist Jennifer Sevigny and tribal enforcement Capt. Bill Hebner, and Tulalip wildlife manager Mike Sevigny met with landowners to discuss options for preventing elk from damaging crops and property.

“We’re experimenting with some non-fencing projects that may offer some good alternatives for others,” said Jennifer Sevigny.

For the first trial, the Stillaguamish Tribe purchased and donated 20 tons of lime to two different landowners in an effort to improve haying capacity in terms of quality and quantity. The increased yield will offset what the elk eat, and farmers may be able to harvest sooner, giving elk less opportunity to forage.

After trying other control measures, lethal and non-lethal, some landowners, including cattle farmers Jim and Frances Carstens, concluded an elk exclusion fence was the only viable option.

“We tried hazing them and working with the (WDFW) master hunter program,” Jim Carstens said. “It keeps the elk away for a short period of time, and then they come back.”

Carstens didn’t have the means to install a fence, even after WDFW supplied the materials. Digging holes for fence posts is the most labor-intensive part of installing elk fences, so the Tulalip Tribes purchased a hydraulic post driver that landowners can share to build fences. Carstens’ fence is being installed with the help of staff from Tulalip, Stillaguamish and Sauk-Suiattle natural resources and WDFW. Once completed, the fence will be 6.5 feet tall, consist of seven strands of high-tensile electric fence, and encompass approximately 146 acres.

“The fence is the ultimate solution for us,” Carstens said. “When the game department came through with materials and the three tribes got together, it helped us immensely on getting the fence up. I’m just extremely grateful. It really allows us to remain in business.”

Property owners might not have to fully enclose their pastures, said Mike Sevigny. “We’ve found that elk enter pastures in certain places. If we block off that access, they don’t tend to find another way in; they find another pasture where they are welcome. Instead of putting up a full fence, we could change the elk’s behavior by putting up a line of fence blocking their entrance.”

“If landowners want to keep elk off of their property, fencing is the most cost-effective and successful method for deterring them,” said Emily Wirtz, wildlife biologist for the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe.

“Some people are willing to put in a fence, but not if it doesn’t work,” said Jason Joseph, natural resources director for Sauk-Suiattle. “They had heard some of their neighbors’ fences hadn’t been effective, and come to find out, they had used a regular cattle fence.”

WDFW and many of the Point Elliott Treaty tribes continue to work with private landowners to use fencing, hazing and compensation measures to solve elk damage problems. The goal is to manage the land so that the elk can continue to thrive on their traditional ranges without causing loss to private landowners.

“One of the concerns we’ve heard from landowners is that ‘if you fence my property, you are just putting my problem on my neighbor,’ ” Mike Sevigny said. “What landowners need to understand is that most groups of elk are already frequenting more than just their property, both public and privately owned.”

Many private landowners in the valley don’t mind elk on their property.

“We feel honored that the elk have chosen to share our land with us,” said Barb Trask, who owns pastures in the Birdsview area and is on the board of Skagit Land Trust. “We are trying to farm in a way that allows us to coexist with the elk. It’s important to take care of the land in this valley in a way that supports wildlife and farming. We consider it part of the cost of doing business.”

“Skagit Land Trust believes elk are a key part of the local ecosystem and our Skagit conservation areas provide valuable elk forage and shelter,” said Michael Kirshenbaum, stewardship director of the conservation organization. “We also recognize that elk cause damage to some private properties and we are fully supportive and thankful for tribal and state efforts to provide assistance to affected landowners, and to work towards a collaborative solution.”

With plenty of elk-tolerant land available for forage and cover, fencing the non-tolerant areas decreases conflict between landowners and elk. Elk fencing has proven to be effective, and is a long-term solution to the elk damage problem. Electric fencing options typically are more cost efficient, take less time to install, can be retrofitted into existing barbed wire or woven wire fences, and are more resistant to flooding. Electric fencing can also be temporary in nature and easily dismantled if necessary.

The Skagit Valley and North Cascades are native habitat that always has been used by elk historically. The meat is a significant source of protein for tribal hunters and their families. The hides, antlers and hooves are used in traditional regalia.

More than 20 years ago, the Nooksack elk population in the North Cascades Mountains was about 1,700 elk. By 2003, the herd had declined to about 300 elk, largely because of degraded and disconnected habitat, as well as overharvest by non-Indian hunters.

Tribal and state wildlife managers agreed to stop hunting the herd in the 1990s, conducted numerous restoration projects and relocated about 100 cow elk from the Mount St. Helens region. Annual population surveys indicate that the herd is showing signs of recovery.

Yakama Tribal Court to hear case over state’s elk management


May 7, 2014

By Kate Prengaman / Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA, Wash. — The Yakama Nation Tribal Court ruled it has jurisdiction in an unprecedented lawsuit that maintains that the state has responsibility to manage an elk herd to prevent damage to a sacred burial site.

Chief Judge Ted Strong found in favor of the tribal member who brought the civil suit against the state Department of Fish and Wildlife when he ruled Friday that the Tribal Court has the authority to hear the case. He ordered the parties to discuss settlement options before continuing with hearings.

Attorneys for the state had asked the court to throw out the lawsuit, saying it lacked authority over Wildlife Department officials named in the suit because they are not tribal members and because the burial site is not on the reservation.

In the case of the burial sites, the judge found that the court’s jurisdiction should not be limited to the reservation.

The case was brought under a 1989 state law allowing tribal members to seek damages in civil court against those who have knowingly damaged Indian burial sites. The law allows cases to be brought in Superior or Tribal Court, but this is the first time a case has been heard in Tribal Court.

It’s a test case for the authority of the Tribal Court, said Jack Fiander, the attorney representing Shay-Ya-Boon-Il-Pilpsh, who brought the case. Fiander said he hopes this case can demonstrate the fair, professional process of the Tribal Court.

Typically, tribal courts only have jurisdiction over cases involving tribal members and tribal lands.

“The Yakama Tribal Member who seeks preservation of the ancient burial grounds has no less right to be heard by this court simply because the remains of his fellow Yakama lies buried in the grave some miles distant from the Yakama Reservation Boundary,” Judge Strong wrote in the order granting the jurisdiction.

The tribal court is “uniquely competent” to hear concerns about the desecration of burial sites, he wrote.

Plaintiff Shay-Ya-Boon-Il-Pilpsh, who is also known as Ricky Watlamet, is charged in Kittitas County Superior Court with felony unlawful hunting after allegedly shooting several of the elk on the Kittitas County property where the burial site is located.

He was invited by the nontribal landowner who was frustrated with the Wildlife Department’s response to her complaints about damage by the elk, which were also eating grasses intended for cattle.

But under state law, tribal members’ treaty hunting rights that allow them to hunt outside of the state-set seasons don’t apply on private land.

Fiander is also representing his client in the criminal case, but he said that he’s encouraged by the Tribal Court’s decision to hear this civil case.

“I think everybody’s pleased about the decision, but we see it as chapter three of about seven,” Fiander said.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that in less than a month as the snow melts that the elk will start leaving the property and hopefully, a settlement can be reached for next year.”

In other areas with elk problems, Fiander said management strategies have included temporary fencing or issuing more hunting permits to keep the herd smaller.

A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office, which represents the Wildlife Department, said in an email that it is “reviewing the decision with our clients and considering our course of action.”

The next hearing is set for June 19, after the parties meet to discuss settlement options.

Once the Tribal Court has reached a conclusion in the case, the decision can be subject to a federal court review to ensure the process was fair, Fiander said.

But, he said he would not be surprised if the state’s attorneys planned to appeal.

“My sense is that ultimately it will end up in federal court,” Fiander said.

Bears are using the special, pretty overpasses built for them

Adam Fagen
Adam Fagen

Holly Richmond, Grist

Bear bridges aren’t just beautiful — they work! That’s what you learn when, instead of sunning yourself and running through the sprinkler, you spend three summers working on your collection of bear fur:

For three years, researchers from Montana State University spent their summers collecting bear hair. The samples, collected on both sides of the 50 mile stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway that cuts through Banff National Park, prove what the researchers had suspected: wildlife underpasses and bridges were helping enough bears move back and forth across the highway to keep the populations healthy.

Not only does this mean the researchers can make a slew of bear-fur scarves, hats, and finger puppets, but that animals are using the paths specifically created to enable their boneage. About 10 percent of the bear population would need to cross the highway in order for its size not to dwindle; the three-year study showed nearly 20 percent of area grizzlies and black bears were using special crossings. Woohoo! Since drivers hit a million vertebrates every day, it’s vital that bears and other animals have an alternative to dodging cars:

Underpasses provide the cover cougars and many small mammals need, while the bridges and overpasses let moose and elk traverse in their preferred open-sky habitats. Cameras at each of the passageways have recorded hundreds of thousands of crossings for many different species, including bears, wolves, lynx, deer, elk and moose.

Like a bridge over troubled traffic, this will ease bears’ minds.