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Originally published February 25, 2013 at 9:37 PM | Page modified February 25, 2013 at 9:37 PM

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Expanding elk herds run into trouble

As the elk population continues to grow in Skagit and Whatcom counties, farmers are complaining more and more about the damage the animals cause to crops and livestock.

Skagit Valley Herald

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Black Angus cattle slowly cropped grass and chewed their cuds on a sprawling green farm east of Sedro-Woolley. It’s calving season, and the Carstens keep a close eye on their herd.

They and other farmers in the area say marauding hordes of elk are invading their fields, knocking down fences, scattering their animals and nearly eating them out of house and home.

Some elk herds number more than 100.

Overall, the estimated 1,000 elk in the Nooksack herd range from Whatcom County to Darrington — and state Department of Fish and Wildlife officials have said they want to nearly double that number to 1,900.

The proposal has some farmers seeing red as state Fish and Wildlife and the Native-American tribes comanage the elk population.

Frances Carstens and her husband, Jim, raise organic, free-range Angus cattle on their ranch near Concrete. During a recent afternoon, cows grazed pastures in the light afternoon mist. The scene was calm, and Frances said the elk had not been back for 10 days.

That suddenly changed. The Carstens said a herd of 63 elk crashed through their fences and mixed a herd of cows and calves with other animals. Frances Carstens said she’s fed up with Fish and Wildlife.

“If they want the elk in that situation, they need to supply the money for fencing,” she said.

“The (department’s) mantra is ‘We don’t have enough money,’ ” Jim Carstens said. “Well, we don’t either. If they don’t have enough money, why is it our responsibility to take care of the elk?”

Frances Carstens said she isn’t sure what will happen to farming in the upper Skagit River valley.

“Nobody is going to farm this place,” she said. “... Sometimes I wonder if that’s not the agenda.”

Scott Schuyler, natural-resources policy representative for the Upper Skagit tribe, said elk have been here for thousands of years.

The tribe has long been a subsistence culture, he said. The elk and salmon sustain them through the year, and in some ways, the elk are an indicator species for the health of the environment.

“We want to see a healthy, viable population for all species,” he said.

But the tribe is not turning a deaf ear to farmers’ concerns, he said. He said the tribe wants to work with Wildlife to come up with a solution that’s agreeable to farmers and the tribe.

“From our standpoint, the best thing we can do is improve their forage areas in the woods north of the valley so they will stay up there,” Schuyler said.

“When they get hungry, they will go for food, and they like the highest-quality forage that they can get their hoofs on.”

For some farmers, the problem has persisted for years.

But several say now, like never before, the elk are traveling south of Highway 20 into the lush green fields next to the Skagit River.

“The elk have now found out that potatoes taste pretty good,” said farmer Jim Hinton, who testified before Skagit County commissioners last month. “They are welfare elk.”

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