RICHLAND – After years marked by a contentious relationship, elk roaming the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and their human neighbors are learning to coexist.
The elk are doing less damage to nearby farms than in the past. State officials say that’s due to a mix of off-site hunting and programs to keep elk off farmland that include high fences and hazing during the summer.
“They are still receiving damage but not near as bad as it had been,” said Don Hand, deer and elk conflict specialist for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.
About 670 elk live in the area. At peak population in 1999, the herd numbered 838.
State biologists say the elk migrated from the mountains to the desert region after a nasty winter in 1972-’73, and much to everyone’s surprise, the elk stayed and prospered in the arid environment.
“It’s fascinating how the herd has not only survived but thrived in the desert,” said Mike Livingston, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.
Elk are thought to prefer greener and lush regions, but elk near Hanford have actually gained fat during winter, Livingston said.
Hanford elk have an exceptional rate of antler growth and have a large number of calves – the herd thrives in the milder winter. They are also protected from hunting while they stay on Hanford land and have few natural predators.
In 2000 and 2001, 205 elk were trapped and taken to the Selkirk and Blue Mountains.
Still, the herd is large and makes its presence known. Between 1999 and 2003, the state paid a total of $500,000 in damage. But those payments dropped dramatically from 2006 to 2009 to as low as $5,000.
Hand said the state developed a hunting program with landowners in the area. Each landowner can receive eight elk hunting permits that they can use, sell or trade.
At the December meeting of the Rod and Gun Club in Kennewick, he showed photos of trails made through wheat fields by elk and trampled areas where elk had bedded down.
One field can have 100 beds, causing significant damage, Hand said. The elk prefer spring wheat to winter, and will trample the winter wheat, which has stronger roots, to reach it, he said.