Bill to stop feeding wildlife considered

OLYMPIA -- For the past three winters, Mark Smith has fed hay to hungry elk near Mount St. Helens.

Smith, an owner of the Eco Park Resort near Mount St. Helens, said he knows that feeding is not the solution to the overpopulation of elk there.

"But I'm not in favor of using starvation as a management tool," Smith said. He feeds 600 to 800 pounds of hay to as many as 100 elk each day.

Smith's winter feeding program for elk will end if a bill introduced in the state Legislature becomes law.

House Bill 1885 would forbid private citizens from feeding elk, deer, bears, raccoons, opossums, cougars, wolves, coyotes, wild turkeys and skunks. It still would be legal to feed birds at backyard bird feeders.

"We need fewer elk, a hunting plan that provides a regulated harvest of elk and more habitat," Smith said.

In the meantime, the bill -- if it is passed as written -- would doom some animals to starvation until the herd comes into balance with the amount of feed that the land can provide, Smith said.

The bill was introduced to stop private citizens who feed bears, raccoons and other animals that can become troublesome when they get used to humans -- and to the food they receive from humans, said Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, who is the chairman of the Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources.

"I'm aware of one person who feeds 100 pounds of dog food a week to a large black bear," Blake said. "That's inappropriate; black bears are dangerous."

Feeding wildlife is a bad idea because the animals get used to humans providing their food, and they can quickly become a problem, said Dave Ware, game division manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"One neighbor feeding animals can become a problem for other people," Ware said.

Fish and Wildlife does feed wild elk at nine feeding stations on the east side of the Cascades, from near Ellensburg to near Yakima, Ware said.

Those feeding stations were created to help elk that have lost their winter range to farms, orchards and ranches, he said.

Fish and Wildlife also fed hay to Mount St. Helens elk during the winters of 2006-2007 and 2007-2008, Ware said.

Feeding the Mount St. Helens herd was a temporary move, but it is not necessary this winter, as hunters killed additional elk during expanded seasons in 2008, and deaths last winter trimmed down the herd, Ware said.

Long-term feeding of elk or deer causes problems when the herds have outgrown the land's ability to provide food, Ware said.

Elk and deer survive the winter and reproduce, which means even more animals on the land. Feeding also attracts lots of animals to a small place, and disease can quickly spread among the weakened animals, Ware said.

Blake said he would attempt to amend the bill to allow Smith to continue winter feeding of elk.

Bills rarely become law without some changes, Blake said.

Rep. Judy Warnick, a District 13 Republican, said she supports the basic concept of the bill.

"It's fun to see cute or majestic animals," Warnick said. "But animals that are used to human-provided food can damage crops and livestock when the feeding ends."