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Elk lessons: Valley groups work on ways to protect animals, homeowners, in the city they share | Photo gallery

A group of spooked elk run through a construction site in North Bend. New housing developments in elk foraging grounds tend to push elk out of their territory, but they usually come back. - Photo by Sandy Horvath
A group of spooked elk run through a construction site in North Bend. New housing developments in elk foraging grounds tend to push elk out of their territory, but they usually come back.
— image credit: Photo by Sandy Horvath

A group of North Bend home-owners is hoping to train the local elk herd to avoid their yards, in favor of a nearby swath of trees. Wildlife experts, though, are skeptical about their chances, and lack of intelligence has nothing to do with it.

Elk are smart, say Department of Fish and Wildlife Officer Chris Moszeter, and Jim Gildersleeve and Harold Erland of the Upper Snoqualmie Valley Elk Management Group.

So smart, they can work through almost any elk deterrent people have tried, including a locked gate to a fenced golf course.

“For some reason, they enjoy those flags on the greens,” Moszeter says. Or, maybe the grass just tastes better, because elk will do a lot to get on a golf course.

Special one-way gates have been installed in many a golf course fence to give errant elk an exit, Moszeter said, and they’ve worked really well in eastern Washington.

An elk stuck inside a fence after closing, he explained, can just push its nose along the fence until it reaches the gate that will open to let it out, then lock shut again.

“But apparently North Bend elk are much smarter than eastern Washington elk,” Moszeter said, because the members of at least one sub-herd here have figured out how to push their way through the bars of such a gate at the Mount Si Golf Course, to make a big enough opening for access.

“If an elk can get its head through something, typically, they will try to get through it,” he said.

That’s probably not the best trait for a 500-pound ruminant living in a city to have, but North Bend’s resident elk herd, at about 450 strong, is proving resilient. The support of a local non-profit doesn’t hurt, either.

“I don’t want to see the elk here become extinct again,” says Erland, vice-president of the Upper Snoqualmie Valley Elk Management Group (EMG) and its wildlife biologist.

It’s happened twice already, the first time in the mid-1800s, when European settlers nearly hunted the elk out, according to Dave Battey’s “Elk in the Upper Snoqualmie Valley” history on the EMG website (www.snoqualmievalleyelk.org). In 1913, the Seattle Elks’ Club imported a herd of 44 Rocky Mountain Elk from Montana (elk indigenous to Washington are Roosevelt Elk, larger and darker in color than the transplants) and introduced them into the Snoqualmie Valley, where they flourished despite the nuisance they made for local farmers.

Weyerhauser employees and community groups fed the elk, and the animals, “healthy, handsome and playful,” returned the favor during the Great Depression, Battey reported, but the coming of World War II ended local elk hunting. The elk population, headquartered on the mill pond island, surged with devastating effect.  A severe winter in 1945 eliminated most of the herd’s forage, and 20 animals starved to death before a rescue was effected and the elk relocated to Mount Baker National Forest.

Today’s herd, first seen again in the Valley in the early ‘90s, are the descendants of a few Rocky Mountain elk that survived the winter in the Cedar River Watershed.

Preventing another catastrophe like the elks’ starvation in 1945 is a primary focus of the EMG and of the DFW. They are working together toward that mainly by keeping the population stable. The non-profit EMG tracks the elk with radio and GPS collars, sharing the data with the DFW so they can better plan for elk movement in their overall management plan. Management, they frankly admit, does mean controlled hunts, but it also means developing wildlife underpasses and repairing fences to keep the elk and other animals off the roads, where most fatalities happen, improving existing elk habitat, and, public outreach and education. Erland gave nearly 30 presentations on elk in 2011 alone, Gildersleeve pointed out.

Another, related goal of the two groups  is minimizing property damage by foraging elk, which is where groups like the LaForest Holme homeowners association come in.

Association president Sandy Horvath said he personally likes seeing the elk in his neighborhood, but not the damage they can cause to the yards and landscaping. They pass through his neighborhood frequently, he said, travelling from the Middle Fork to the South Fork.

“We’re trying to direct them away from the residential areas,” he said, to a 20-foot-wide ‘buffer’ of trees between the old neighborhood and the new. “But somehow or other, the elk don’t know how to read signs,” he said with a wink.

Polygon offered that buffer as a tree retention easement, and to address neighbors’ concerns about the proximity of the new construction, when it submitted its preliminary plat for the development on Cedar Falls Way in early 2011.

“It was just a tree retention area, just to provide some vegetation there,” said Polygon project manager Ben Rutkowski.

He said initially there had been “some discussion on if our project would provide a corridor for the elk,” but “It’s my understanding that our 20-foot buffer was nowhere near what they actually needed.”

Gildersleeve, a self-proclaimed “strong property rights advocate,”  was skeptical that even a 100-foot buffer would be adequate for a wildlife corridor, and noted that county regulations call for 200-foot buffers around sensitive areas, and 300-feet for wildlife.

“They need to think about wildlife corridors… multiple use trails, where the deer and the elk use it probably at night, and human beings use it probably during the day,” he said.

Horvath hopes to partner with Polygon in an effort to plant the buffer with vegetation irresistible to the elk, but Gildersleeve offers a warning about “enhanced” elk areas: “They will also hold the elk in the area and they can do a lot of browsing in a short period of time.”

Also, Moszeter said the buffer, which has some underbrush, looks much less appealing to an elk than the open yards nearby. He guessed the elk might use it if the buffer were fenced off from the homes and cleared a little through the center.

Elk are opportunistic, and will go to any easily accessible source of high-quality food, but they’ll eat anything when they’re hungry, Moszeter said.

One of the best deterrents for elk damage is the EMG’s work on habitat development. Their natural home is in the mountains, Gildersleeve said, and, in general, they leave there only when food gets scarce, such as in the fall and winter. Then they come to the Valley floor and break into subherds of 40 or 50 to find enough forage.

The elk group has recently gotten permission to plant some elk-attracting plants in a recently logged area above Snoqualmie, in hopes that it will keep the elk in the mountainous areas.

“There’s just not enough food up there to hold them,” he said, “…so  our theory is there will be increased habitat up there and the elk will spend less time down in the suburban areas.”

If persuasion doesn’t work, the EMG and DFW will resort to more forceful deterrents, starting with fences, and ending with controlled hunts.

Fences, Moszeter said, are the only really reliable way to keep elk out of an area, provided they don’t make their own routes in, by damaging fences. Fencing that’s four-feet wide with a mesh of four-inch holes on one end, tapering to two-inch holes on the other end, works well, he said, when you put two lengths together to make an eight-foot fence with the smaller holes together and the larger holes at top and bottom, farthest from an elk’s prying nose.

Hazing and hunts have also proven effective, despite the huge public outcry that followed last year’s announcement of a planned hunt on the Snoqualmie Ridge TPC golf course.

Erland and Gildersleeve, both master hunters, were disappointed by the reaction, which resulted in the hunt being cancelled, because they’ve seen how effective they can be. Removing one or two breeding females from an area helps to curb the population growth, and can keep a herd away from an area indefinitely.

“They are trainable,” said Erland. “You kill a couple of them and they’re going to move. They’re going to use different trails, they will find different areas. They will actually stay off people’s property, because they’re smart that way.”

For that reason, the elk group is seeking private property owners willing to open their land for such controlled hunts.

“People who want to limit their damage and be involved in the management of elk in the Snoqualmie Valley,” Erland said, are encouraged to contact him or Gildersleeve.

The benefits of their management strategies are clear, both in the deterrent value of the hunt and, ultimately, in the control of a growing and healthy population of elk who might easily outstrip their food sources on the Valley floor.

Roughly 25 animals are killed each year by hunters, Gildersleeve said. Interestingly, about twice that many permits are awarded annually – 10 for archer, seven for modern weapons, five for muzzle-loaders, five for youth hunters, and 25 to master hunters. The success rate for master hunters and hobbyists alike is about 50 percent.

Elk definitely are smart, and the best example of that may be in their choice of homes. After all, people love to see them, and they may have managed to change local behaviors, too, while living here.

“Most golf courses know now to take down their flags at night,” says Moszeter.

Learn more at www.snoqualmievalleyelk.org.

Above, the Upper Snoqualmie Valley Elk Management Group, serving dinner to the homeless. Pictured from left are Jerry Koepping, Sharen Koepping, Sam Metzler, Lynn Brechtel, Alan Fletcher, Nicole Pemsel, Phil Cassady and Mike Walter.

Below, Sandy Horvath captured these images, which include two bull elk fighting near his home on Cedar Falls Way during last fall’s mating season, or rut, as well as others showing the elk exploring suburban construction sites in his neighborhood.

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