Point Elliott Tribes: Damage control hunts are last resort

MOUNT VERNON – Damage control elk hunts are a management tool that should be used only as a last resort, Point Elliott treaty Indian tribes say.

On Dec. 28, a damage control hunt in Skagit County was canceled after a handful of archery hunters breached the state’s Hunter’s Code of Conduct. As many as 18 animals were killed before the hunt was canceled. During a damage control hunt in 2008-2009, more than 40 elk were killed.

These damage hunts remove mostly cow elk, hampering efforts of the state, tribes and local non-profit groups to rebuild the Nooksack herd. The hunts don’t provide a long-term solution to a chronic problem, said Todd Wilbur, a Swinomish tribal member and chairman of the Inter-tribal Wildlife Committee of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

“The Skagit Valley bottom lands are the natural winter range for these elk in the Nooksack herd,” he said. “As the herd grows, elk will continue to visit the valley floor during winter months, in increasing numbers.” Elk have very few places to go during the winter because their habitat is so fragmented. Winter snows drive the animals down to the valley to forage, and most of the herd’s historic winter range has been lost to agricultural and residential development. These elk will continue to damage property in search of food unless other quality habitat is available to them, Wilbur said.

Tribes favor fencing and acquiring property for elk habitat to address the problem, Wilbur said. Point Elliott Treaty tribes have been seeking to acquire land in the Skagit and Nooksack river basins to enhance and preserve for elk use. Last year, the Tulalip Tribes, with help from the Stillaguamish Tribe and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, enhanced 12 acres of private timberlands in the area, removing invasive plants and planting vegetation for elk food. Since then more than 20 elk have been seen foraging in a restored meadow near Baker Lake.

Damage control hunts undo the work that the tribes and state have done to recover and preserve the Nooksack elk herd. By 2003, the Nooksack herd had declined from about 1,700 elk to 300. Several years ago the co-managers relocated about 100 elk from the Mount St. Helens area to boost the herd’s population. Since then, the herd has grown to more than 700 animals, enough to support a limited hunt by treaty and non-treaty hunters.

“Damage control hunts can be an effective management tool, but they offer only short-term relief,” Wilbur said. “These elk are not going to stop their seasonal migration to the valley floor. Fencing and acquiring or leasing property for elk habitat offer the best solutions for elk and people,” he said.

For more information, contact: Todd Wilbur, chairman of the Inter-Tribal Wildlife Committee, (360) 466-7245 or twilbur@swinomish.nsn.us; Tony Meyer, NWIFC, (360) 528-4325 or meyer@nwifc.org.