Feds propose hunt to cull Hanford elk

U.S. Fish and Wildlife is considering allowing hunting of the Hanford elk herd on Hanford Reach National Monument land that now is closed to the public near Rattlesnake Mountain.

Strictly controlled and limited hunting would be allowed starting next fall to gradually reduce the size of the herd during several years to about 350 elk, said Jack Beaujon, assistant refuge manager for the monument. The herd now numbers 650 to 700 animals.

A draft plan for the hunt has been developed and public comment will be accepted on it through Dec. 30.

Elk hunting could be allowed under the plan on more than half of the land on the portion of the Hanford Reach National Monument south of Highway 24 and west of Highway 240. The summit and slopes of Rattlesnake Mountain would be excluded, but other rugged canyon areas of the Rattlesnake Hills to the northwest of the mountain would be opened to hunters.

"No one is allowed now," Beaujon said. "It's closed to all public access."

The area was set aside during World War II as part of the security perimeter of the Hanford nuclear reservation and has been designated the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, or ALE. It's a natural shrub steppe study area for scientists and educators, owned by the Department of Energy and managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Elk are believed to have migrated to ALE from the west in the '70s, and from 1984 to 2000, the population grew from about 50 to more than 800. As soon as the herd size grew beyond 350, the animals began damaging crops on adjacent private land, including wheat.

Damage claims totaling up to $287,000 a year have been submitted to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, although in recent years the claims have ranged from $5,000 to $18,000 with the help of a new full-time state deer and elk conflict specialist to reduce crop damage.

Washington and also the Yakama Nation asked for help to reduce the size of the herd to 350 elk to reduce damage to private land and damage to the national monument, according to the draft hunting plan. The Yakamas now are not allowed to hunt on ALE, although much of it has been designated a tribal traditional cultural property.

The elk hunting, to be managed by Washington and the Yakama Nation, would not include the large trophy bulls that roam ALE. It only would be open for cows, because reducing their population would reduce the reproduction rate of the herd, Beaujon said.

Hunting would be limited to 10 hunters a day, each who could bring one person with them. More people could be allowed to help them haul out an elk shot in the hunt. Only modern firearms could be used because the purpose of the hunt is to reduce the herd size.

Hunting only would be allowed by permit weekdays in one-month periods from October through March. September hunting would not be allowed because of wildfire danger. If elk move across Highway 240 to the active portion of the Hanford nuclear reservation to escape hunters, the hunting season could be suspended.

Vehicles would be restricted to roads, including one that would take hunters into the center of the hills to the mouth of Snively Canyon. Horses and off-road vehicles would be prohibited, and dogs also would be barred.

This is the second time U.S. Fish and Wildlife has proposed a controlled public hunt to cull the elk herd. In 2005, a proposal for special-permit public hunts received comments about evenly split for and against hunting.

But the plan was dropped when the Department of Energy said a hunt was inconsistent with its management plan.

DOE is not opposing the current proposal, said DOE spokesman Geoff Tyree. Since then federal economic stimulus money has been used to complete environmental cleanup in the monument, including ALE, he said. Hundreds of debris sites were removed and military buildings torn down.

DOE has asked U.S. Fish and Wildlife to consider a plan that will protect the safety of workers at Hanford, he said.

The draft plan is posted at this site. Copies also are available by calling 546-8300.

Written comments can be sent to Elk Plan Comments, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 64 Maple St., Burbank, WA, 99323, or emailed to hanfordreach@fws.gov.