Elk in the Valley: balancing safety, beauty

Last month, state Route 202 (Railroad Avenue) added a few new signs to its strip of road between Snoqualmie Middle School and North Bend city limits.

Last month, state Route 202 (Railroad Avenue) added a few new signs to its strip of road between Snoqualmie Middle School and North Bend city limits.

Two diamond-shaped yellow caution signs feature images of elk; the signs rest atop smaller square signs that highlight a suggested slow-down cautionary speed of 35 miles per hour.

“[The signs are] purely a public safety issue,” said Kirk Holmes, Snoqualmie’s public works director.

The speed limit in that area traditionally ranges from 20 mph by the school (when the caution lights are flashing) to 40 (when the lights aren’t flashing) through 50 mph at North Bend city limits.

The signs were placed in that area because it’s the only place the city of Snoqualmie can put them within its jurisdiction and because there were “a good number of vehicle and elk collisions this year,” Holmes said.

There have been no human fatalities from the elk recently, but Holmes said there certainly could be with drivers traveling 50 mph or more along SR 202. He also noted that some drivers park their cars along the side of the road to stop and take photographs of the elk herd, causing additional traffic safety issues.

When a 600- to 800-pound-plus elk gets hit by a vehicle and is killed, the carcass must be moved or its presence on the road causes traffic problems due to the scavenger animals that explore and eat the dead elk and because of the massive amount of space the body takes up on the roadway.

Holmes estimated that the signs cost about $150 each. There are two signs now, but there are plans to post more on Park Street by the golf course.

Holmes estimated that the elk herd, residing in the Meadowbrook Farm/Three Forks Natural Area, includes 175 or more North Rainier elk.

He said there are no plans to add additional signs or other road alterations if herd numbers increase. He noted that there may be funds put aside in the future for that purpose.

“This just forces [drivers] to keep their eyes open,” Holmes said. “I think it’s important. We’re just protecting the public [because] the elk will always be there.”

The elk are part of a resident herd (rather than migratory) with no natural predators nearby, nor is hunting allowed in many of the places in which the elk live, including within the Snoqualmie city limits, Holmes said. The city of North Bend also has an ordinance prohibiting hunting and the discharge of firearms.

“It’s all part of nature … and living in the city,” Holmes said. “You might not see them, but that doesn’t mean they’re that far away.”

Balancing the elk herd population with the city’s needs has long been an issue for residents of North Bend, Snoqualmie and those who live outside city limits.

Pat Young, who has lived outside of North Bend since 1963, saw her first elk in 1984. She thought it was a neighbor’s horse.

Since then, she has seen a steady rise in the elk population, causing both an issue with traffic safety and with homeowners’ yards, including erosion, damaged vegetation and the potential for dangerous circumstances since Young describes the elk as fearless, especially during mating season or when they have calves nearby.

“Elk are destroying everything,” she said, noting that on her property, they have pushed through an electric fence and a six-foot chain-link fence with barbed wire.

The state suggests putting up an 11-foot fence (to keep them out), but “I am not going to live in a prison,” she said.

Young is a supporter of the signs because she said it will remind people to be careful, but she would also like to find a way to manage the elk population. Her ideas include allowing experienced, permit-required hunting, finding a new place to move them or at least holding a public meeting with government representatives for citizens to voice their concerns.

“They’re great for tourists, but not at the expense of property owners,” she said.

“There has been discussion regarding controlling the elk population, but there is no direction at this point as to how we should do that,” said George Martinez, North Bend’s city administrator. “Everybody’s aware that the elk are an important piece of our rural character and to the beauty of this area. We’re trying to find a way to balance that.”

Dick Burhans, who lives near the foot of Mount Si in Moon Valley, said he has about 30 elk in his front yard. He said he has been disappointed with how the state has handled the elk population so far and is an advocate for proactive elk management, rather than just working around the elk.

“They’re letting those animals kind of rule the way of life up here,” he said. “There has been this growing rumble because of the elk. The problem with the caution signs is that human beings might pay attention … but the elk won’t.”

In 2002, the state proposed the North Rainier Management Plan.

The initial plan included the objective of increasing the local elk population from 175 to 500. According to the executive summary available through the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, it was designed to manage the elk herd for a substantial yield; to manage elk for a variety of recreational, educational and aesthetic purposes including hunting, wildlife viewing, photography and scientific study, as well as cultural and ceremonial uses by Native Americans; and to manage and enhance elk and their habitats to ensure healthy, productive populations.

However, the state is only in the preliminary stages and will not have a final plan until at least 2007, stressed Russell Link, the district wildlife biologist for the DWR.

The numbers and/or objectives may change because the state is still looking into the specifics and public feedback.

For more information, visit http://wdfw.wa.gov or call Link at the North Puget Sound Region Four office of the Washington State Department of Wildlife in Mill Creek at (425) 775-1311.