GEARHART — North Coast leaders struggling to address elk-related issues in their communities hope an organization with ties to the governor’s office will be able to help.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife often finds itself responding to elk-related questions in Clatsop Plains, an area that includes sections of Gearhart and Warrenton, where interactions between elk and people have become a safety concern.
But public opinion on elk varies widely. Any management of the animals would involve a diverse collection of government agencies, organizations and private property owners withvery different goals and objectives.
“It’s hard for any one agency to come up with a cohesive game plan that everyone will buy into,” said Herman Biederbeck, state wildlife biologist, at a meeting in Gearhart on Wednesday with representatives of Oregon Solutions.
The state owns almost no land in the Clatsop Plains, he said, so the ability of the state to manage that area is “basically nil. … There’s no way that ODFW can do it alone.”
But working with Oregon Solutions, based out of Portland State University’s National Policy Consensus Center, may be one way for diverse groups to develop a cohesive management plan.
The organization met with Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer and Gearhart Mayor Matt Brown, law enforcement, state fish and wildlife employees and other stakeholders to discuss the growing number of elk in and around the two cities.
Karmen Fore, the director of Oregon Solutions, and her team plan to talk with more stakeholders and determine whether tackling the elk issue should become one of the organization’s projects. The organization could also ask Gov. Kate Brown’s office to officially designate the work an Oregon Solutions project, opening up potential state funds.
Oregon Solutions often plays the role of mediator, but also enters the scene when communities are struggling to determine oversight and responsibility of an issue.
One example is the group’s involvement after flooding in Vernonia in 2007 destroyed the town’s middle school and high school. Rebuilding the schools was vital to the town’s survival, but was too much for a single group — or someone like a school principal — to coordinate.
Warrenton and Gearhart leaders told Fore and Michael Mills, program outreach manager with Oregon Solutions, that the elk herds pose public safety risks and damage private property. Last month, an elk clambered over the hood of a Toyota Prius that had stopped to let a herd cross state Highway 104. The elk slipped and smashed into the windshield.
Neither Mayor Brown nor Mayor Balensifer believe they would find widespread community support for culling the herds. But Balensifer said Warrenton is interested in discussing a variety of options, including controlled hunting.
Brown noted Gearhart is still interested in looking at the possibility of relocating animals, even though state wildlife officials have said this would not be possible.
Most elk-appropriate habitat in Oregon already has plenty of elk. Some of the animals even came originally from Clatsop Plains stock, noted Chris Knutsen, northwest watershed manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Transporting elk is no longer considered biologically or socially responsible, Biederbeck added. There is always the chance of transferring disease along with the animals.
John Putnam, northwest director for the Oregon Hunters Association, said it is important to explore all solutions.
Human behavior — feeding the elk, stopping to take pictures of them — has helped to create the problem, habituating the animals to the presence of people. “But we need to keep all options on the table,” he said.
It is unlikely the elk will ever be gone for good, no matter what solutions communities may attempt. But on a scale from zero to a million elk, stakeholders still do not know what their communities are willing to tolerate.
“We don’t even really know, from a public perspective, what an acceptable number is,” Knutsen said.