Lights, camera ... cue the elk

Making their way from the Gearhart Golf Links over to Gearhart Palisades, a herd of elk find food in residents' yards last April.

Gearhart’s herd has its own television segment

It never ceases to amaze me how much attention elk get around here.

They even have their own television segment.

Not only do they stop cars on the highway, they have the power to curtail meetings.

Last week — on the night they were about to star on TV — Seaside Public Works Director Neal Wallace told the Seaside Parks Advisory Committee that its meeting would be swift.

He had to get home to watch the elk.

Never mind that the committee was about to discuss a proposal to develop pathways and bird blinds around the Mill Pond on the south end of Seaside. The project, which has taken years to get to this point, just didn’t muster the attraction that a 10-minute segment on Oregon Field Guide did.

Lured by tales of an elk herd routinely roaming through Gearhart, an Oregon Public Broadcasting producer spent a few days in South Clatsop County to see for herself what all the fuss was about.

She talked to local filmmaker Howard Shippey, nature photographer and biologist Neal Maine, Gearhart Mayor Dianne Widdop and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Herman Biederbeck.

The OPB video crew shot footage of 100 elk traipsing through town, past City Hall, down Pacific Way, through local front yards and loping onto the smartly trimmed lawn of the Gearhart Golf Links.

It was like they owned the place.

Gearhart City Administrator Chad Sweet said it was more of a “people problem” than an elk problem; his comments acted as a voice over of a scene of an elk being shooed off by a local resident who yelled, “Quit eating my plants.”

Adam Woods, from the Highlands Golf Course, likened the frequent invasion of frolicking elk to 3-year-olds weighing 1,500 pounds ruining the golf course. Employees have to work an extra 20 to 30 hours a week repairing damage caused by the elk, Woods said.

But Shippey, who had stunning shots of elk wading into the Necanicum Estuary, turning toward the camera and galloping in the water, had a different take on the elk.

“It almost looks like they’re smiling,” Shippey said. “They were, I think, obviously having fun. Having fun just wasn’t something I ever expected to see elk doing.”

Well, who wouldn’t have fun when you’re with your friends and you can throw your weight around, and no one — certainly not these silly humans with their cameras — can stop you?

It reminds me of that cliché: If you can’t beat them, join them. Widdop seems to agree.

“They have become quite a part of Gearhart,” she told the OPB crew.

The elk even attracted enough attention that a town meeting was called just to talk about them — or rather, how to reduce their numbers. Contraception? Relocation? Hunting?

Maine suggested attaching a GPS locater on them so people could go to their computers to check where the herd happened to be that day.

None of the ideas seemed effective, or, in the case of hunting in the middle of town, appropriate.

In the end, educating the community about the elk was about all people could come up with. Signs are going up now, but I’m wondering how effective they will be if a herd gets too close and knocks them over. I guess that will teach some sort of lesson.

Despite some negative reaction toward the elk, Shippey and Maine saw the positive side.

“We’re living in a high-quality place with enough open space to have elk,” said Maine, who spends much of his days trekking through the local backwoods to gather fabulous photos of wildlife we all take for granted.

“That’s kind of a blessing you don’t want to mess up by having a community battle,” he added.

As Shippey watched a young bull elk lock horns with a larger bull in the dune grass on the beach, he called the elk an “opportunity.”

If we on the North Coast want “clean, nonpolluting” attractions that bring in temporary tourists and permanent dollars to the community, then “elk are a perfect vehicle,” Shippey said.

Goodness knows, they stop enough vehicles on the road, I responded snarkily as I watched the end of the Oregon Field Guide segment.

But no sooner had Shippey made his comment than it was confirmed by a beachgoer who encountered elk on his path to the ocean.

“I was in Jacksonville, Wyo., and I didn’t see this kind of action,” the beachgoer said. “And that’s why I went there.”

Hmm…. Maybe we need to rethink our response. Instead of trying to shoo the elk away, perhaps we should embrace them as tourist attractions, take the bull by the horns (so to speak) and take a meeting with their publicist.

There must be someone around here who can polish their image. And who’s going to do their hair and make-up?

Nancy McCarthy covers South Clatsop County for The Daily Astorian and is the editor of the Seaside Signal and the Cannon Beach Gazette. Her column appears every two weeks.

Instead of trying to shoo the elk away, perhaps we should embrace them as tourist attractions.

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