Oregon lawmakers this morning heard arguments for and against a bill that would begin a pilot program to alleviate “excessive elk damage,” with hunting organizations expressing concern and ranchers demanding action.
House Bill 3227 drew a full house during public comment in Salem before the lower chamber’s Natural Resources Committee, which also heard from the Department of Fish and Wildlife about what tools are in its toolbox for when too many of the prized ungulates gather on valley floor pastures.
This winter and the harsh one of 2016-17 have seen large numbers pushed into the lowlands and farmers and ranchers fields and haystacks, where some apparently have taken up year-round residence too.
But even as they acknowledge that that’s a problem, hunters are worried about nebulous language in the bill, including what exactly “excessive” means and how it opens up the current landowner damage program to allow any “persons” to get a tag to kill antlerless on the property or leases of producers and others who complains they’re suffering too high of an impact from elk.
“The Oregon Hunters Association opposes House Bill 3227, as it does not consider elk biological factors, environmental conditions, most hunters interests, or the effectiveness of collaborative efforts,” wrote Ken McCall, OHA resource director. “It places elk management in the hands of landowners rather than with trained professionals within ODFW. Elk distribution issues are complex, and a one-sided approach is not the answer.”
Blake Henning, conservation chair of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, called it a “heavy-handed approach” in written testimony and said the problem was a result of other issues.
“This bill treats the symptoms of elk herd distribution rather than its true causes—lack of suitable habitat on adjacent public lands and pressure from predators. The Oregon House of Representatives would do well to address these problems before considering this statutory landowner damage pilot program,” his remarks stated.
The numerous territories of wolves in the mountains above La Grande and Elgin were featured in Union County Commissioner Paul Anderes’s slideshow.
But it also showed apparent elk damage, including teetering haystacks that had been eaten on at the bottom, and elk tracks and trails through muddy or planted fields.
Besides passing the bill, Anderes said other solutions were removing wapiti from the floor of the valley and “night-time shooting.”
Under the bill, the pilot program would include Clatsop, Lincoln, Morrow, Tillamook, Umatilla, Union and Wallowa Counties, and livestock producers and farmers from some of those voiced support for it during the hearing, saying that lowland elk herds have been growing in size in recent years.
Some said they had no intention of making any money off of selling tags through the proposed program.
Committee Chair Brad Witt was pretty emphatic that something needed to be done.
“We’re not going to let Oregonians be eaten out of house and home,” the Clatskanie Democrat said. “We’re going to protect hunters’ interests as well.”
He had asked representatives of the hunting groups in attendance — OHA, RMEF along with Oregon Bowhunters — what it would take to get closer to an agreement about how to move forward.
“I’m looking at how we get to a yes,” Witt said, indicating his desire to move the bill.
ODFW’s Shannon Hurn said that the most effective solution so far has been working collaboratively with legislators, landowners and hunters, which was echoed by OHA’s Al Elkins.
He said it wasn’t a one-size-fits-all issue, and that his conclusion after working for 20 years on it is that regional discussions about specific problems areas works best.
Near the end of the meeting, OHA’s Ken McCall rose and echoed sentiments from Henning’s RMEF statement.
“We’re leaving the federal lands out of this conversation and we shouldn’t,” he said.
McCall said his organization has been working for the Forest Service to improve habitat on low-elevation lands adjacent to agricultural operations.
Chair Witt asked the hunter groups to provide a contact name to him and the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Greg Baretto, a Cove Republican, to be available to work on the issue.
Two more hearings on Oregon elk bills are scheduled for this afternoon.