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Farmers deserve help with critters

Running a soup kitchen for wildlife is a cost of doing business for farmers and ranchers.

But the charitable feeling deteriorates when critters gang up on a place.

Allowing hunters on the land can help in the fall. Herding and harassment with shotgun shells can help in other cases, but ranches are huge and most of the damage is done at night. A guy’s gotta sleep.

Game animals can’t be sprayed with pesticides like bugs. Yet an infestation of elk can damage crops, rip out fences and break up irrigation pipe to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars faster than you can get a pizza delivered.

On April 9 in Ellensburg, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will discuss new guidelines that would saddle landowners with more responsibility should they file for wildlife damage claims.

Dave Ware, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department big-game manager, will make the case for the revisions.

Ware has the unenviable job of trying to maintain thriving deer and elk populations while keeping farmers and sportsmen happy. He must pursue this lofty goal even though he controls neither the funding nor the land the animals inhabit much of the year.

The Washington Legislature makes most of the rules and rations a pitiful $150,000 or so a year for wildlife damage claims across the state.

Deer and elk might be responsible for some of the most expensive damages, but the majority of the claims the agency receives involve smaller fry, such as raccoons, he said.

Thus, the minimum acceptable damage claim would be raised from $500 to $1,000.

Other proposals include requiring landowners to:

•Hire a professional crop insurance adjuster to assess the value of their losses.

•Provide Schedule F of the farm’s tax return regarding gross sales or crop values.

Ware says most of the proposals are proactive by spelling out the options for preventing wildlife damage as well as a clear-cut way to document damages and complete a claim when other methods have not worked.

But Kelly Allen, who owns a Blue Mountains farm that’s attractive to elk almost year around, finds little to like about the state’s wildlife damage program, past or proposed.

“It’s difficult to get claims now, and the proposed regulations are vague and difficult to understand,” he said.

A group of stakeholders, including farmers, ranchers, sportsmen and others, helped the agency come up with the proposals, Ware said.

But Allen says most landowners had no knowledge of the process and no chance for input.

The cost of hiring an appraiser and other administrative costs resulting from the guidelines would likely wipe out any funds a farmer might receive for a damage claim, he said.

“The state used to have an elk herder in the Blue Mountains who would go from farm to farm and help keep animals off the crops, but not anymore,” he said.

“They tell us they’ll provide the materials for elk-proof fencing, but we have to install it. I got an estimate and it would cost about $130,000 a mile in our rugged country, so that’s not going to happen.”

Harland Radomske, who ranches near Ellensburg, said he’s getting some cooperation “after years of complaining and losing several hundred thousand dollars in damage.”

Last fall, the agency signed up 18 sportsmen volunteers who took turns standing guard every night in October. For several hours around midnight, they scared off elk that had been coming in at night to pound his irrigated crops.

“It was beneficial – finally,” said Radomske, a member of the stakeholder group advising the state on wildlife damage.

“We let hunters in and they kill 20-30 elk every year, but hunters can do only so much when the elk leave during the day and come in at night.”

Similar volunteer efforts are unlikely in the Blues, Allen said.

“People have jobs. You might get people out here on the weekends, but the elk will be here the other five days.”

Both landowners say the public needs to assume more responsibility.

About 1,500 elk were at the edge of Radomske’s ranch this week, and more than 500 of them were coming in to snack on his pasture.

A WDFW enforcement officer came up and the two of them were able to harass the elk off his pasture.

“That problem is caused by people who want to run up on the public land with their ATVs to hunt for shed anglers,” Radomske said. “There’s a big uproar from the public when the department tries to impose closures, but it’s the public chasing elk off public land this time of year.”

Elk and deer are good for hunters, businesses and the local economy. “But it’s not fair that farmers should be burdened with so much of the expense,” Allen said.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or e-mail