Polk County is experiencing a growing population of unwanted guests detrimental to agriculture and hazardous to residents and motorists – elk.
At the Jan. 10 Polk County Commissioners meeting, Todd Whitaker, director of public works, shared the growing concern his office has been hearing.
“We’ve had some recent complaints about the elk population in the Airlie/Elkins Road area in the southwestern portion of the county,” Whitaker said. “In December, there was an accident out there of a vehicle versus an elk.”
That accident involved Elkins Road resident George Gilbert Young. He posted photos on his Facebook page of his car, totaled after a collision with an elk in the middle of the darkened road, late at night.
“In the last 5 years, Roosevelt Elk near me have established a forage pattern that has them crossing the road twice a day. Someone’s gonna die,” Young posted.
Whitaker concurred that the herd has taken up residence in a pretty large area around Soap Creek, west of Pacific Highway and just north of the county’s southern border and are migrating further north each season.
“They’ve split up into two or three different herds. We’re talking hundreds of elk in each one of these herds,” he said.
Greg Reed, district wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, acknowledged the elk population has grown unwieldly in that area.
“The Salt Creek Herd is a pretty large herd we’ve been dealing with,” Reed said. “We estimate there’s 400+ elk in that herd.”
Reed said the ODFW’s attention is drawn whenever widespread agriculture damage is caused by these roaming, large herds.
“We get some bigger ones we see on forest lands, primarily on the Valley floor,” Reed explained. “I consider big (herds) over 100 animals. It looks like this one is made up of multiple ones that came together some time.”
Commissioner Craig Pope said the elk herds have been an ongoing problem as they have essentially taken over the entire bottom part of the valley, at least to the river. The problem isn’t just to local residents or motorists driving through the area either, he said.
“Farm bureau members, individual farmers in this county have been meeting with ODFW, have been pleading for help,” Pope recounted. “My family is just being pummeled by these animals. We have crops like hazelnuts that are just being obliterated out there. The bulls love to go into those young trees and sharpen their antlers and they just destroy those trees.”
Whitaker added the bulls are now targeting power poles after running out of trees.
“You drive up and down Airlie Road and you can see where bulls are rubbing against power poles,” Whitaker said.
“The problem is the elk have figured out they’re protected and can get into all the feed they can stand. Their birth rates have exploded,” Pope added.
Young would like to see the county erect Elk Crossing signs to alert motorists to the danger. Whitaker does not see that as a very viable solution.
“The information I have from the Insurance Institute on Highway Traffic Safety, says there’s no evidence those elk crossing signs work,” Whitaker said, adding nobody will fund research on a premise that everyone assumes won’t work.
Whitaker said if the board of commissioners wanted to pursue that route, Elk Crossing signs are relatively inexpensive to put up at $200-$250 a sign. It would take as few as 16 signs to handle the area where the elk roam.
“One way to reduce the cost, would be to install a sign, such as driving into the county on Maxfield Creek Road, that says ‘Entering Elk Area.” Or put one on Highway 223 that says elk area next so many miles,” Whitaker suggested.
Pope was not sold on installing multiple signs to remind motorists they were driving through elk country.
“I think that would be an exercise in futility. I think it would be a silly thing to do. I’m being tongue-in-cheek here – there might be people out there who want us to force the elk to cross where the elk crossing signs are. I’ve heard these jokes,” Pope said. “But the fact of the matter is we could do much better by using these resources, time, money, etcetera, pushing ODFW to do their job. That is where the challenge is here.”
Reed said the ODFW performs annual elk counts in late January and early February. To help thin these herds, he said the agency has been offering two types of hunting tags. They’ve expanded their general season antlerless elk damage tags issued to hunters to partner with private landowners to hunt the elk in a longer season from Aug. 1 through March 31.
“Hopefully, these tags will help break up herds, or push them on to forest land, eventually reduce herds in size,” Reed said.
ODFW has also partnered with Oregon State University to offer a controlled hunt tag to give hunters access to public agriculture ranches where elk have spent time.
Whitaker said part of the problem with the hunters’ tag programs is the landowners. He said hunters are running into the problem of being unable to get permission to gain access to those lands that are suffering damage.
“Part of that is landowner education, saying ‘How do we make you guys feel more comfortable that people aren’t going to come in and cause problems on your land or damage it worse than the elk would?’ Those aren’t controlled applications hunters are putting in for, they’re over the counter that they will sell. Anybody could do it. It’s not being utilized because nobody can get access to land,” Whitaker said.
Commissioner Lyle Mordhorst sympathized with the farmers from the stories they tell.
“I was talking to a farmer, ‘I’ve seen the damage of an elk herd running through my field,’ he said. ‘How much damage are you going to do to get out to the middle of my field where the elk is laying?’ He says ‘How are you going to get it out of there without destroying (my) property?’” Mordhorst shared.
Whitaker said to avoid getting stuck in fields “buried up to the doorsill,” the hunting season starts Aug. 1 through mid-October when that land is “fairly solid.”
“Public awareness is the key,” Pope added. “We need to get people to slow down, be aware that they are driving in herd zones. “We know we’ve fortunately not had a death by elk, we know they’re capable of it. They’re as big as a horse. We know striking horses can be fatal. We can do a lot more with public education, engagement with ODFW about our challenges.”
Reed said part of that education starts with motorists driving through areas with known herds.
“I caution people, especially in winter, to slow down, especially in the morning and evenings when it can be foggy on rainy days,” Reed said. “The elk have been known to cross Highway 99, Airlie, Tampico Road, where people are driving through at fairly high speeds. It’s best to slow down and keep an eye out for them.”