Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

State agency blasted for lack of response to burgeoning elk population

A state biologist's report on how California plans to manage local elk herds was met with frustration by the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, who said more should have been done already to address surging elk populations.

Dave Lancaster, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told county supervisors that development of a statewide elk management plan is underway and that a draft for public comment should be available soon after the dawn of 2015.

"Here's what we have in mind: having a well-distributed, robust elk population in areas where conflicts are minimal that provides for public use opportunities," Lancaster said.

Those areas include public land, private timber land and private property where owners are interested in trading habitat improvement work on their property for the chance to sell elk tags to hunters - keeping all money above the cost of habitat work.

Elk would be encouraged to thrive on public lands and industrial timber lands, like the tract owned by Green Diamond Resource Company in the Rowdy Creek area east of Smith River, where elk are abundant.

But in the privately-owned, agriculturally-dominated Smith River bottoms that encompass the towns of Smith River and Fort Dick, "we would manage against elk," Lancaster said.

A bull elk hunting season in September and October would continue, but hunting for antlerless elk from October through the end of the year would be increased.

"If you want to reduce an elk population, it's the antlerless elk you need to focus on," Lancaster said. "It takes very few bull elk to service a lot offemale elk to create baby elk. We'd really work at reducing elk populations in the bottoms in this antlerless season."

Increased hunting and aggressive hazing (like rubber bullets and dogs) in the Smith River bottoms would ultimately persuade the Roosevelt elk to venture toward less violent pastures, Lancaster said, possibly spreading onto the Six Rivers National Forest land east of the Rowdy Creek Green Diamond land.

"Elk are very habitual. We put a lot of pressure on through hunting and hazing, and they are very likely to spend less time where they are not welcome," Lancaster said.

'We have too many elk'

Supervisor Michael Sullivan, speaking on behalf of ranchers, residents and farmers who have too many elk interactions in District 3, said that Lancaster seemed to be "out of touch with our reality here" and got annoyed that CDFW doesn't have strong data for the number of elk in Del Norte.

"'Robust' - your definition of it to me translates to rampant. We have tons of elk in Del Norte County. We have too many elk in Del Norte County, and they are not going to Forest Service land because the Forest Service doesn't manage their property," Sullivan said. "They are not going to go to these public lands that you want them to go to because you don't have open pastures."

Lancaster said that the exact numbers of elk populations are not important because everyone is in agreement that "we have plenty of elk" and if the county insists on having scientifically-supportable elk census data first, then management plans will be a long time coming.

"If you want to wait until we have good elk data, then you're going to be waiting years. We don't want to do that. We want to move now. We have an elk management plan that's in the works to get rolling," Lancaster said.

Having an elk management plan in place has been part of state Fish and Game code since 2003, but it has not been prioritized until now, Lancaster said.

Sullivan grumbled about the low priority that elk management has been given by CDFW, saying that a senior department scientist was directed to focus on listing the gray wolf as an endangered species in California above elk management.

"The gray wolf doesn't live in California - we're developing a plan for a species that doesn't exist here and you have prioritized that over elk, a species that is here and is out of control," Sullivan said.

"Your local biologist doesn't have a lot of say on decisions in Sacramento," Lancaster responded, asking Sullivan to focus on more pragmatic steps forward. "Focus on supporting the proposal. Right now you have an opportunity for a proposal and management for what is done for elk in this county."

Steps for management

Part of Lancaster's recommendation for management would include the antlerless hunting season on private lands where elk are not wanted. For those elk that don't respond to the newly unfriendly territory, Lancaster would propose three other steps for reducing elk in the Smith River bottoms:

Step 1: CDFW would have first dibs on stubborn elk in the private Smith River bottoms, capturing and relocating those elk to private and public lands where the elk are welcome.

Step 2a: If CDFW isn't available for relocation, private landowners would be encouraged to use "aggressive hazing efforts, rubber shotgun shells, rubber bullets, putting dogs after them" Lancaster said.

Step 2b: For elk that don't flinch at the hazing, there would be a waiting list of hunters willing to respond within 48 hours to "come out and take those animals," Lancaster said.

Step 3: Depredation permits. "If there's a bull elk goring horses or cattle, you can't wait 48 hours for a hunter to show up," Lancaster said. "We have a depredation process that allows that landowner to take that animal immediately."

Supervisors and public commenters alike groused about the lack of depredation permits that CDFW has issued compared to requests for permits. Lancaster later told the Triplicate that one or two landowners received depredation permits were issued in the 2000s when a bull elk was goring horses, but other than that, there hasn't been any issued for decades.

Alexandre elk

While Lancaster wasn't willing to share less-than-scientific estimates of local elk populations, Blake Alexandre of Alexandre EcoDairy shared how he's seen elk increase on his ranch:

In 2010, the ranch saw its first herd of elk, with 43 head. They crossed the Smith River and basically haven't gone back since, he said. There were between 43 and 53 elk in 2011. In 2012, the herd numbered in the 60s. In 2013, Alexandre counted 97 elk on his ranch with 17 babies born. This year, there have been at least 20 baby elk born for a final count of 90andndash;110 elk, including 31 bulls.

Alexandre estimated that he loses between $50,000 to $100,000 in grass feed from the elk grazing his property, and he asked that the management plan include his and other large landowners' desire to raise the number of elk hunted in the Smith River bottoms.

Lancaster told the Triplicate that the necessary environmental document (through the California Environmental Quality Act) to increase the amount of elk that can be hunted is scheduled to begin in early 2015 after the management plan is finished.

"The environmental document will help make what's recommended in the plan a reality on the ground," Lancaster said.

Reach Adam Spencer at aspencer@triplicate.com.

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