One man’s natural wonder is another man’s nuisance.
While representatives of the Gearhart Golf Links don’t want to rid the city of elk, they would like to see the herd reduced. And after a dramatic incident involving beachgoers menaced by an elk cow, they feel that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife — the organization responsible for the elks’ stewardship — has not done enough to pursue property protections and ensure public safety.
“We’ve been working on getting the elk removed, the herd size reduced for years now,” Gearhart’s Russ Earl said Tuesday at a meeting with Gearhart Golf Links General Manager Jason Bangild and Superintendent Forrest Goodling. “We’ve had (meetings with) four different levels of Fish and Wildlife people, up to the executive director, and we’ve gotten exactly the same results.”
If the herds had been managed properly in the past, it would not of been such a big issue now, they say.
Their latest attempt to discourage the elk — up to 100 in the herd, they say — involved the use of coyote decoys and coyote urine, designed to remind the elk of their predators. Landscape crews sprinkled the coyote urine on the eight plastic coyotes strategically placed on the perimeter of the 100-acre, 18-hole golf course — the oldest golf course in Oregon and one of several area courses facing the problem.
“They’ve basically said, ‘Put some signs up around the golf course,’” Earl said. “That didn’t help us at all.”
While the course faces tens of thousands of dollars of damage caused by elk, the risk to human safety reached a head this month when an elk cow protecting its calf charged a bicyclist in Gearhart, days after menacing beachgoers, children and dogs. The elk was tranquilized and brought to safety by police, firefighters and officials from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The elk calf was also tranquilized and reunited with its mother at God’s Valley in Tillamook State Forest.
The incident stirred public sentiment and led to a call to action.
“You can tell from the last two weeks of elk incidents, someone is going to get killed,” Goodling said. “There are plenty of people pushing strollers. If a bicycle spooks that herd and it goes around the corner, there’s no stopping them. I’ve seen them jump over a 6-foot concrete fence one after the other.”
Bangild said the Gearhart herd has at least “doubled or tripled” in the six years he has been here. “That’s way too many for a small town,” he said.
“I used to take my son down to the estuary for walks, but now I am much more cautious. You are stuck out there.”
Bangild, Earl and Goodling each said they don’t want to kill elk — hunting is prohibited in Gearhart — only to move them out of the city to reserves like God’s Valley or Circle Creek.
“We are not seeking to eliminate the entire herd, but at least get the herd down to where it is safe for the town residents,” Goodling said.
But transport has its limits, Dave Nuzum, acting wildlife biologist of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said Tuesday.
Nuzum has been coming to Gearhart for several years, meeting with city leadership, the public and golf interests.
In 2014, the city asked the department to come up with a cost estimate for the transport of 75 percent of the herd.
The total cost for trapping was estimated at $14,000 for a one-month effort, which could bring in “an optimistic number of 50,” more likely 30, Nuzum said.
One day of darting, which would tranquilize the elk, is $1,472 per animal. Fewer than 10 elk could be darted and transported per day.
A public workshop and subsequent meetings with the department identified “a suite” of responses, including hazing, fencing and exclusion.
“Transplanting was part of that,” Nuzum said.
What complicates matters is the dichotomy of interests between those who want to get rid of the elk and “an even more greater number of people who love the elk,” he said. “They don’t want anything done.”
Trap and transplant, as suggested by the golf course officials, is a popular suggestion, he said, but of limited value.
“Population control through trap and removal has been widely shown not to work for any species causing trouble anywhere, whether it’s Canada geese, urban deer, whatever,” Nuzum said. “And of all the methods discussed, it is by far the most expensive.”
Elk are baited, usually using alfalfa hay, before being trapped in a flat-paneled corral. The traps are remote-triggered and the panels then drop a canvas covering so the animals don’t get spooked by anyone walking by.
It would be impossible to remove all the elk, Nuzum said.
A realistic number might be 30 before trapping becomes ineffective.
“Thirty elk is not going to make that much of a dent in the population,” he said. “If you were able to remove a higher percentage, they breed. You would be back in the same boat in a very short amount of time.”
And in a city like Gearhart, where elk occupy an almost mythic role, residents may tamper with traps.
“Inevitably your traps are going to get vandalized by folks who are opposed to it,” Nuzum said. “Somebody always has to mess with them.”’
Fencing is the only “100 percent sure way” of keeping elk out of any area, he said, whether a dairy pasture, orchard or a golf course. “The downside of that is aesthetically, you don’t want the place to look like Stalag 17.”
There are a number of ways to make fencing more attractive, but exclusion has consequences, he added. “Say you were to put up an impenetrable fence around the golf course — problem solved. Well, there are still elk going around town.”
Nuzum’s response may not satisfy Bangild, Earl or Goodling, who say they have been down this path before.
“I can’t believe it’s up to us to come up with a plan,” Bangild said. “We’re trying to run a golf course. I spend more hours than I ever thought I would coming up with a solution.”