Elk run the show on Oregon’s north coast

When humans and wildlife clash, sometimes an animal bites your minivan.

 

A passing elk herd makes use of the infrastructure in Gearhart, Oregon.
Jeff TerHar

The elk chased Pauline Como’s minivan down the driveway in Gearhart, a small town in Clatsop County, Oregon. Then the animal charged it. The cow gnawed at the passenger door, leaving bovine-sized teeth marks along the vehicle. Three days later, she returned and trapped Como’s sister behind a tree, then nearly trampled Como’s German shepherd to death. It took three cop cars to run her off.

Como nicknamed the elk C.C. — short for Crazy Cow.

C.C. is a Roosevelt elk, and hundreds of her ilk roam the streets, golf courses and backyards of Gearhart and neighboring Warrenton, on the north Oregon coast. Their presence there has increasingly clashed with the lives of the area’s human residents, leading to a search for solutions with the help of state officials. In the meantime, the story of Clatsop County’s elk highlights the West-wide struggle to coexist with the region’s wild residents in an era when human activities are making those conflicts more and more common.

This corner of the Oregon coast is where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1805-06. Historically home to mink farms, grist mills and lumber yards, it’s better known nowadays as a summertime tourist destination, complete with saltwater taffy shops and whitewashed cedar beach homes. By the early 1900s, unregulated hunting had killed off most of the area’s Roosevelt elk. But in recent decades, tighter hunting regulations have allowed the animals to stage a comeback. Over the last 10 years, the near-constant presence of elk has become as much a part of local culture as clam chowder and rain. As one resident described them, they’re the Kardashians of the coast, with their own Facebook page and plenty of YouTube uploads.

In part that’s because Clatsop County is one big elk smorgasbord. While other Western towns like Banff, Alberta, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Estes Park, Colorado, have also dealt with problematic influxes of the animals, the Oregon Coast attracts them for a unique set of reasons. Despite recent growth, the population density still is low. There are few predators. And the bounty of backyard gardens and wide-open private logging lands and protected dunes has drawn grazing elk in from the forests. “If you found a place that you never had to work for food and nobody ever bothered you, where would you go, right?” said Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer.

A common sight on Gearhart lawns.
Jeff TerHar

Private landowners and local golf courses estimate the elk have cost them tens of thousands of dollars in damage. On Beth and Vern Weaver’s six acres in southern Gearhart, for example, it’s common to see a hundred elk bed and graze.The Weavers once planted an apple tree in their yard, but the elk ate four of the five apples on the sapling. Two weeks later, they returned to eat the last. “I think they were waiting for it to ripen,” Vern Weaver joked.

But what are you going to do? They’re elk. By mass, Roosevelt elk are the largest variety of elk in North America. Bulls can weigh up to 1,200 pounds, so heavy they can total a car upon impact. Their antlers are made of bone, can weigh up to 40 pounds and can pierce internal organs. Elk are as tall as horses, and fast.

But some people forget how dangerous elk can be, or never knew it. They feed the animals apples from their outstretched hands. They take selfies with them. They give them names like Huey, Louie and Olaf. The result is that the elk have begun to lose their fear of humans. “People are stupid. They’re making pets out of these animals,” Beth Weaver said.

In the last several years, elk have charged people to protect themselves or their calves a handful of times. Children have been caught harassing elk, leading to confrontations. In other cases, the animals’ motivations are less clear: One bull bluff charged a school bus, for example, then, later the same day, knocked a man off his feet. In a second instance, another bull trapped a 13-year-old girl in a baseball dugout.

To solve the problem, officials have considered restrictive fencing, targeted hunting, and trapping and relocation. But fences are still in the testing phase. New hunting regulations haven’t yet been finalized. And trapping and relocation has been ruled out due to cost and the risk of spreading diseases. Municipal, county and wildlife agency leaders have asked for help from the governor’s Regional Solutions Office, but some are pessimistic. “Is there a solution to resolve it? I don’t know that there is. You’re dealing with wild animals in a community,” said Warrenton police Sgt. Jim Pierce. “How do you chase wild animals out of an area where they’ve always lived?”

As for the human residents of Clatsop County, some believe in adapting to the elk; some want them culled; and some want them around — just fewer of them. And some people, like the Weavers, have accepted their defeat. “You have to laugh or else you’ll cry all the time,” Beth Weaver said.

L.L. Kronebusch writes from Portland, Oregon.

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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