Controversy surrounds Packwood's elk herd

PACKWOOD -- The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has proposed a special hunting season in the Morton-Packwood area to reduce the number of elk that have been traipsing through yards and gardens.

But the Puyallup Tribe, which has hunting rights in the area, opposes the hunt and says the herd is already too thin.

The issue has also divided residents in this Cascade foothill community south of Mount Rainier who like wildlife in neighborhoods and those who are tired of having the big animals trample yards and chew up fruit trees. About 15 residents have complained to state officials about elk damage in 2008 and there were seven complaints in 2007.

"Elk trampling a garden is not a good reason to doom an entire herd," Fred Dillon, the Puyallup Tribe's natural resource policy representative, told The (Tacoma) News Tribune. "These decisions should be based on clear scientific evidence, not public relations."

If approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, the first Packwood elk hunt would take place in the fall of 2009. Hunters would be allowed to kill elk cows and bulls along U.S. Highway 12 from Morton to Packwood. Hunters would still need owner's permission to shoot on private property.

The proposal is still in the discussion stage, with a town meeting planned in Packwood.

The conflict between residents and wildlife in Packwood has gone on for years, said Dave Ware, the state's game division manager. State officials have dealt with similar elk problems around North Bend and Sequim.

Hunting is the "most effective and least expensive" way to cope with the clash between marauding elk and complaining property owners, Ware said. "If you're getting a bunch of complaints from the public, you need to address it."

Some homeowners disagree. "The elk are not walking on our land. We built on their land," said Lonnie Davis, who lives in Puyallup and owns 20 acres just outside the town. "I say just leave it as it is."

Some residents feed the elk, which encourage them to spend time in town.

"I spent $500 on alfalfa last year," Bill Serrahn, who divides his time between his Packwood home and his condo in Seattle, told The Seattle Times. A photo of an elk, taken from only a carrot's length away, adorns a wall of his home, and picture windows look out to the backyard, where Serrahn likes to watch 25 or more elk peacefully chew their cud after he feeds them.

If anything, he'd like to see a larger no-shooting zone in Packwood, not more hunting areas, "and I definitely don't think it's sporting for them to hunt around town," Serrahn said. "I could walk up to an elk right there and hit it in the head; they know me."

Jim Beslow, who owns an auto repair shop in Packwood, said cars and elk don't mix on busy Highway 12.

"I don't want to see people get hurt; they get hurt enough. We've been having a lot of cars smashed up," he told The Times. "And there are no apple trees. No flowers. They are after everything in your yard."

Still, he has doubts about a hunt in town.

"The elk, they are a good deal and a bad deal," he said. "The good deal is they have put Packwood on the map. People love the idea of the elk. I think they are here to stay."

The Puyallup Tribe's wildlife biologist, Barbara Moeller, has tracked the herd and says it now numbers about 1,000, about half the size state officials have said they would like to manage in the area.

The Puyallup are among four tribes with hunting rights in the area.