Limited hunting best plan for preserving ALE site

It's been a long-held dream of many hunters to help cull the herd at Hanford, which has grown to nearly 700 elk that have found refuge on lands with no public access.

Now, it may be a dream come true under a plan proposed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife that would allow hunters to harvest elk from the Hanford Reach National Monument during the next hunting season.

It's a smart solution to a perennial problem.

The impact of the massive herd is a threat to the Arid Lands Ecology site in the national monument, and the animals have been rampant in damaging nearby crops on private land.

This isn't the first time a hunt has been proposed. In 2005, a similar controlled public hunt was proposed but dropped when the Department of Energy said it didn't fit in with its plan to manage the land.

But DOE is not opposing the new proposal, which rightly includes strict controls and limits, with a goal to reduce the herd to about 350 elk over several years.

We've seen photos of trophy-quality bulls roaming the range in the area, but before hunters go dreaming of giant mounts on their walls, this hunt would be open only for cows. And that makes sense when you're trying to thin a herd, since it slows reproduction rates faster than culling bulls.

Under the proposal, hunting would be allowed on more than half the land at the monument south of Highway 24 and west of Highway 240, which is closed to public access.

Rattlesnake Mountain would be excluded, but plenty of other good hunting grounds in rugged canyons would be open.

A lot of the restrictions make sense when you're talking about public hunting on federally protected lands that also have cultural significance for Northwest tribes. The Yakama Nation has asked for the herd to be culled as well, though most tribes are still concerned about the effect of opening public access to the sensitive lands.

But with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife facing damage claims of up to $287,000 a year from the rampant elk, something needs to be done. The department has significantly reduced the damage claims from nearby farmers with the help of a full-time deer and elk conflict specialist. But that's still costing the state and, therefore, the taxpayers.

Only 10 hunters would be allowed per day, with one companion along for the trip. There would be no bow-hunting or muzzleloaders, only modern firearms. Hunters could drive onto the monument but only on existing roads. No horses, ATVs or dogs would be allowed. Hunters could have more people assist in removing a harvested elk from the property.

A permit would be required, and hunting would take place on weekdays from October to March. If the influx of hunters results in the elk moving across the highway to an active part of the Hanford reservation, the hunt could be over.

We're glad to see U.S. Fish and Wildlife reviving the plan and including adequate restrictions to protect the monument. It's not good for the herd or the land to have so many animals concentrated in one area.

The importance of preservation of the land at the monument is clear for all of us. And in this case, that means some of the elk have got to go.

In the past, that has sometimes meant expensive trapping and relocating efforts conducted by the government. Instead of costing taxpayers, hunters allowed to cull the herd will pay for the privilege.

Hunters can play an important role in preserving this special place, but to do it they'll need to tread lightly.