CAPE HORN — There are success stories in the hills and valleys of Skagit County when it comes to keeping elk off farm fields and away from livestock.
These successes have taken monumental effort from both landowners and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Since 2014, Fish and Wildlife has completed 30 fencing projects in the area consisting of about 90,000 linear feet of fence.
Of those projects, 26 were in Skagit County, while the other four were in Acme, located in Whatcom County. Some fences are electrified while others are a combination of both electric and nonelectric.
Fish and Wildlife recently highlighted several of its success stories during a tour of several properties in the Cape Horn area west of Concrete.
Large herds of elk regularly roam this area and have a history of damaging fields, harassing and harming livestock, and destroying fencing put up by farmers, ranchers and gardeners.
That’s where Fish and Wildlife has come in.
“We build the majority of the fences with occasional help from tribal co-managers,” said Fish and Wildlife biologist Fenner Yarborough. “But it’s all up to the landowner to decide on specifics such as participation and design.”
Over the years, plenty of landowners have been frustrated not only by the elk but by the lack of help from government agencies such as Fish and Wildlife.
Now, some of those who once criticized Fish and Wildlife are thanking the agency for saving their property, and in some cases their livelihood.
In 2014, ranchers Jim and Frances Carstens, who raise 150 head of free-range Angus cattle on about 175 acres in the Cape Horn area, lamented the fact Fish and Wildlife wasn’t doing enough to protect their cattle.
In a Skagit Valley Herald story at the time, they said they and other farmers were having elk invade their fields, knock down their fences and scatter their animals.
In the story, Frances Carstens said she was fed up with Fish and Wildlife for letting the elk roam at will throughout the area.
“If they don’t want the elk in that situation, they need to supply the money for fencing to keep them off,” she said.
Fast forward eight years.
Funding consisting of $300,000 from what is called a pass-through grant has gone to Fish and Wildlife fencing projects, including the one on the Carstenses’ ranch. Such grants are received by a recipient government — in this case, tribal — to transfer to or spend on behalf of a secondary recipient.
“A portion of that grant was spent on tools and equipment for installation of fence, and some fertilizer for farmers experiencing elk-related damage,” said Yarborough. “Fencing materials have also been provided to nonfarmers in the form of temporary fencing for gardens, horse owners, etc.”
He said in the 2020-21 biennium about $30,000 in additional funding was used for equipment maintenance for fence building and materials for fence repairs.
It has taken time to get to this point, but the Carstenses are among the many fencing beneficiaries who now sing the praises of Fish and Wildlife.
“We wouldn’t still be doing this if it wasn’t for them,” Frances Carstens said. “We first started fencing in 2014. We had a problem back then. I mean, it wouldn’t be farming without the cattle, without hay fields. What we had was 60 head of elk all in there at one time… We are just so thankful for the fence.”
Scott Witman, a Fish and Wildlife wildlife conflict specialist, has worked closely with the Carstenses. He said their property borders elk-friendly acreage, and that means the elk would graze their way onto their property.
“When it came right down to it, the fence was the only option,” Witman said.
Yarborough said what a fence does is teach the elk they can’t go wherever they want.
The Carstenses’ ranch is enclosed by about 2 miles worth of 8-foot-high electric fencing. They are responsible for its maintenance, which includes keeping it clear of undergrowth and brush, and making repairs.
“We eventually got it all figured out,” Jim Carstens said. “It’s not bulletproof. Maintenance on the fence is not difficult, it just takes time. But it’s worth it.”
Frances Carstens said they’ve had one elk manage to get onto their property this year. It left after a couple days.
Witman said while six elk had been shot on the property in the past by Fish and Wildlife certified master hunters, it wasn’t enough to discourage the elk, and fencing was really the only solution.
A 40-acre sheep farm also in the Cape Horn area is now encircled by electric fencing.
“We have been working with this property owner since 2014,” Witman said. “We started looking for what was available for use starting back then. Really what can we say, elk are silly things. They’ll come into a sheep field and then try and jump into some really small spaces. In the meantime, they are causing a lot of damage. Fencing basically stopped that.”
Reid Miskelly simply wanted the elk out of his horses’ pasture.
Eventually, that’s exactly what he got as Fish and Wildlife supplied him with 7 1/2-foot-high fencing and a 200-foot buffer along his property bordering the river that allows the elk to move freely outside the fence.
“What can I say, I used to go into a panic when I saw an elk,” Miskelly said. “It was really nerve-racking. The last thing you want is your horse tangling with an elk.”
The fencing put his mind at ease.
Witman said like all the other projects, the one on Miskelly’s property relied on coming up with a creative solution for both the community and the wildlife. And the property owner doing their part.
“Again, fence maintenance is the big thing,” he said. “If something falls on it, if there’s any opening, elk are going to find their way in.”
The Concrete School District hopes to become one of the success stories.
Superintendent Wayne Barrett recently lamented that the district’s sports fields are consistently damaged by elk.
“We have gotten to the point that something else has to be done,” he said.
That something is fencing adequate enough to stop elk from going wherever they please. The district is awaiting grant funding for the project.