There was a battle over elk this afternoon in Olympia, and it was not unlike those that occur in the fall when the Evergreen State’s bulls go at each other.
As originally written, a bill introduced in the Senate would basically open a year-round season for licensed hunters to shoot limping elk in areas where hoof rot is occurring.
It’s an attempt to stop the spread of the untreatable disease causing the problem, but it drew sharp concern from hunters and others testifying before the Natural Resources and Parks Committee.
“I guarantee every large bull elk in Washington will develop a limp,” Mark Smith said during public comment.
Anis Aoude, WDFW’s Game Division Manager, worried that it would lead to a “substantial” reduction of the state’s herds.
“All they have to say is when they killed this elk, it was limping,” Aoude said.
That was not the intent of the bill, according to its prime sponsor, Sen. Kirk Pearson, the Monroe Republican who chairs the committee.
But it and another that was discussed today and which would require WDFW to reimburse emergency responders for dealing with vehicle-elk collisions telegraphed his anger over wapiti problems pretty clearly.
“I’m doing this to make the department take this issue a little more seriously,” said Pearson in regards to the latter bill, SB 5078, adding of the former, SB 5474, “I think it’s a very serious issue or I wouldn’t bring it in front of this committee.”
Pearson represents the Skagit Valley, where WDFW and local tribes teamed up to recover a poaching-decimated herd, bolstering it with the translocation of elk from the Mt. St. Helens area in the early 2000s, before hoof rot really took hold in Southwest Washington.
(Last year, a Skagit bull was feared to have it, but follow-up tests were negative with a caveat. )
That led to better hunting opportunities in Northwest Washington. A Nooksack bull permit is one of the most coveted in the state, but unfortunately many of the elk now live on the valley floor, primarily on private lands, and accessing them is difficult at best.
That’s created issues with local farmers whose crops the elk depredate and whose fences they rearrange, as well as led to increased collisions on Highway 20.
Pearson has been keeping a wary eye on the herd and last year introduced a bill that would have required WDFW to send him and other lawmakers an updated management plan and barred the agency from implementing it until lawmakers had time to chew on it. It passed the Senate unanimously but didn’t make it through the House.
During today’s hearing, a representative of the Skagit County Cattlemen’s Association said that WDFW had failed with its elk-exclusionary efforts.
Another local called the valley floor animals “welfare elk” that were enjoying the local farms’ pastures and hay instead of hanging in the high country.
Speaking of the high country, the health of that habitat up there was brought up during testimony.
Smith, who owns a resort on the way to Mt. St. Helens, says that herbicide spraying on private timberlands where elk are supposed to live means the land “doesn’t have the carrying capacity” it once did. That puts them in harm’s way.
WDFW blames hoof rot on an infectious bacteria that’s common in sheep, and though not everyone who addressed the committee — including Dr. Boone Mora, the retired health worker from Wahkiakum County — agreed with that assessment, it was clear they care deeply about the health of the state’s elk and don’t want the problem to spread.
“We owe these animals something more,” said Bruce Barnes, an avid elk hunter from Vancouver, but he did not support the cull bill.
“I can guarantee my freezer would never be empty,” he told the committee.
Along with the potential for a good number of the state’s elk to be turned into burger, WDFW’s Aoude said the agency was also concerned that SB 5474’s prohibition against moving elk might impact research projects on affected animals. He said that not all limping elk are affected.
By chance the latest weekly Wildlife Program report includes a picture of a bull with a swollen front right hoof it’s favoring.
“Dr. Kristin Mansfield says … that she does not believe this is treponeme-associated hoof disease (TAHD), which almost always involves the rear feet,” said WDFW spokeswoman Madonna Luers, referring to the agency’s veterinarian.
A representative of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, which has been working with WDFW on North Cascades elk herd efforts, said the tribe had “concerns” with SB 5474.
As for SB 5708, Aoude said while the reimbursement process could be worked on, having to pay emergency responders who attend to elk-car crashes represented a $1 million hit to the agency over two years, and it doesn’t address the issue of preventing them in the first place.
But in so many words, that seems to be the tack Pearson is steering towards. It’s early in the legislative process for both of today’s bills, and the senator said he’d be happy to work with those who have concerns.
“I’d like to hear from the director what he’d like to do,” he said, a reference to WDFW’s Jim Unsworth.