Elk continue to thrive in Mid-Columbia desert

About 670 elk continue to roam the Hanford nuclear reservation, including Rattlesnake Mountain, but they are doing less damage to nearby farms than in the past.

"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.

At peak population in 1999, the herd numbered about 838 animals, but that has dropped to an estimated 660 to 680 in most of the years since then.

The size of the herd has been managed, in part, by off-site hunting, and damage has been further controlled through a program to keep the elk off farmlands. Efforts include high fencing and hazing the animals on summer nights when they wander onto farmland.

Beginnings of the herd settled at Hanford in the winter of 1972-73, when a bad storm drove them out of the mountains early, said Mike Livingston, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.

The size of the herd slowly grew at first but then started to more rapidly grow in the mid-1980s. By the end of the decade, elk had started to move off Hanford.

"It's fascinating how the herd has not only survived but thrived in the desert," Livingston said. Common wisdom is that elk prefer green, lush forests.

But the Hanford elk have an exceptional rate of antler growth and have a large number of calves.

Mild winters likely have contributed to the herd's health, with some evidence that some animals actually gain fat over the winter, Livingston said.

They also are protected from hunting if they stay on Hanford and have little threat from other animals, other than coyotes that might take a few very young elk and the rare cougar that passes through.

The most dramatic drop in the size of the herd came when 205 elk were trapped and taken to the Selkirk and Blue mountains in 2000 and 2001.

The 2000 Hanford fire also drove animals onto private land to find food, and more were taken by hunters. The Department of Energy does not allow hunting on Hanford.

But the herd still is large enough that the animals spread off Hanford and cause damage to nearby wheat fields, orchards and vineyards.

From 1999 to 2003, the state paid a total of about $500,000 in damage. However, from 2006 to 2009 damage payments have dropped to $5,000 to $18,000 a year.

The state has established two hunting programs with private landowners. Landowners in the Black Rock area are more supportive of hunting, Hand said. Each landowner there receives eight elk permits to use, sell or trade and is required to allow access to four hunters with state permits. Some landowners do not use their permits, however, Hand said.

In the Corral Canyon area, where landowners would like fewer elk, each landowner gets three or four elk permits to use or issue to other hunters.

In addition, Hand oversees programs to limit damage on private lands near Hanford.

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.

On summer nights Hand will shoot off shotgun cracker shells to make noise and shine a spotlight to haze elk on private lands. He also has tried using an electronic amplifier with cougar sounds, wolf calls and shotgun blasts with some success. However, scent stations with cougar urine do not seem to faze the elk.

Fences paid for with a state and private cost sharing program also have worked, but money is no longer available for that program. Those fences have posts about 11 feet high and wire about 8 feet high.