RICHLAND – Federal wildlife officials have approved a plan to kill as many as 60 elk to control the burgeoning population in a protected area near the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Initially, five cow elk would be shot by state or federal wildlife agents within the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve. Over time, the plan would cull about 10 percent of the Rattlesnake Mountain elk herd that has grown to 600.
The emergency management action approved by the project leader for the Hanford Reach National Monument could drive other animals onto private land where public hunting is allowed.
When the herd is hunted on private lands, the elk retreat to the federal reserve lands where hunting is prohibited.
The herd often strays onto ranch lands bordering the 70,000-acre reserve to graze on crops. More than $500,000 has been paid since 1996 in claims for crop damage.
No date has been set, but the cull could start in a couple of weeks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project manager Greg Hughes said.
The land has been closed to the public since World War II, when it was established as a buffer zone around Hanford, where plutonium was produced for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
The emergency plan follows a Hanford Reach advisory committee recommendation last week that a variety of methods are needed to control animal populations.
The quick decision to kill elk on the reserve surprised committee Chairman Jim Watts.
“There are a dozen other ways to control the animals without going out and shooting them,” he said Tuesday.
The advisory committee recommended several control methods, including hazing to run animals off sensitive areas, limited hunting, capture and relocation, contraception drugs and expanded hunting outside the reserve, Watts said.
Killing the animals should be a last resort, he said.
Two years ago, elk were trapped with nets and relocated, Hughes said. But that option isn’t available because U.S. Fish and Wildlife has not found a place willing to accept them, he said.
And the state has not supported moving the elk as a long-term solution, he said.
Hughes said he cannot legally expand public access to allow hunting on the reserve while the government is still determining how monument land will be managed.
Five animals in the proposed initial cull would be tested for diseases and radionuclide contamination from the Hanford reservation. If found safe, meat would be given to the tribes or programs to feed the hungry, Hughes said.