Gearhart, Warrenton join forces on elk

Elk enjoy a Gearhart backyard.

Gearhart and Warrenton are taking steps together to understand and address elk herds that appear increasingly at home in urban areas.

Gearhart Mayor Matt Brown and Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer met Wednesday afternoon with state Sen. Betsy Johnson, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Bruce Buckmaster and Gearhart City Administrator Chad Sweet to ask questions and provide information.

Both cities plan to hold town hall-style meetings soon with fish and wildlife biologists and officials to review options for sharing a landscape with elk.

Johnson hopes to coordinate with a number of people and organizations who have a stake in the issue to get a better sense of the full impact the herds have on the two communities.

She noted there are costs, both real and social, that come with dealing with the elk — from the impacts on private landowners to the resources it takes for state agencies to gather public input or respond to elk-related accidents on the highways.

“It seems to me that knowing the composite fiscal ramifications informs what all the universe of choices might be,” Johnson, D-Scappoose, told the mayors during the talk at Gearhart City Hall.

Herman Biederbeck, a wildlife biologist for the state’s North Coast Watershed District, will attend a Gearhart City Council meeting in April to answer questions. He and other state fish and wildlife representatives will also present the council with a suite of possible options for addressing Gearhart’s herd of 100 or more animals, from nonlethal possibilities like restrictive fencing to lethal options.

The state does not have a single recommendation, Buckmaster said. Rather, fish and wildlife officials want to know what kinds of actions a majority of Gearhart residents would support. He assumed no one wants to get rid of the elk entirely.

No, the mayors replied. They still want some elk around.

In January, Brown wrote a letter to Biederbeck on behalf of the City Council expressing the city’s increasing concern about the elk population and included documentation of elk encounters reported by residents.

“The herd have become quite placid with cars and people,” Brown wrote. “The City of Gearhart would like to request more information on how best to protect the citizens’ safety and what can be done to ensure no one is injured or killed by these animals.”

“This has become a serious safety issue for our community,” he added. “Also, many property owners have reported that elk have caused extensive damage to vegetation, structures, exterior wiring and equipment which presents a danger to the elk as well.”

Gov. Kate Brown, U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici and Johnson received copies of the letter. Johnson says the issue is among her top priorities.

Public opinion on the elk is divided in Gearhart, but there have been incidents of people trapped in their homes or driveways after a herd moved near a house. There are reports of people being charged by a protective elk cow on the beach. Gearhart Golf Links has advocated for a trap-and-transfer program. Last year, the golf course set out plastic coyote decoys and sprinkled coyote urine to try to keep elk off the greens.

Balensifer said Warrenton hopes to also host Biederbeck soon to provide people with basic information about how to live with the elk and discourage them from routinely visiting gardens and properties. Warrenton does not deal with nearly as many elk as Gearhart. The City Commission also passed a law to make it illegal to feed wildlife other than songbirds and squirrels after some elk, used to treats from humans, became aggressive.

There are several theories for the elk herds’ increased presence in the two cities: Development has encroached on areas they used to roam; forests have become more difficult for the animals to traverse following massive windstorms; few predators or diseases to keep herd numbers in check; and the ready availability of food and safety from hunters.

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