PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The City of Gearhart held a heated town meeting on Monday to discuss the 77 elk that were killed on one landowner’s property between 2020 and 2022.
At the meeting, which was closed to public comment, the Gearhart city council publicly grilled Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Paul Atwood for the agency’s decision to approve 77 hunting tags for one property owner during a three-year period. The issue arose on Oct. 4 when City Councilor Sharon Kloepfer brought the issue to the council’s attention, the Seaside Signal reports.
“I’ve been approached by multiple Gearhart residents about the elk issue in our town, specifically, ‘where’d all the elk go?’” Kloepfer said at the Oct. 4 meeting.
During the Oct. 30 meeting, Atwood, who oversees Clatsop County’s elk population, explained that the tags were issued through the Oregon Landowner Damage Program — a tool that allows property owners to reduce elk populations in the area through hunting. When a property owner provides evidence of elk-caused damage to their property, the ODFW awards as many as five hunting tags at one time to a list of hunters named by that property owner. The hunters are then permitted to kill an elk on the landowner’s property. In Oregon, a permitted hunter may hunt one elk per year.
“It’s clear that there are very different opinions and perspectives on the elk issue in the community,” Atwood said. “There are people who enjoy seeing elk in their yards and roaming through the community in the streets and on the golf courses. When elk are in these spaces, it can lead to property damage and public safety issues. These are serious issues that must also be taken into consideration when elk and people share the same spaces.”
Atwood said that the ODFW used the existing Oregon Landowner Damage Program as a means to reduce the local elk population after the ODFW took part in the Clatsop Plains Elk Collaborative in 2019 — a project created by former Gov. Kate Brown in 2019 to potentially reduce property damage, injuries and safety hazards caused by local elk populations.
“The Collaborative came about after years of complaints from local residents expressing concerns about the abundance of elk in the area and the potential for safety issues,” the ODFW stated on its website.
While city officials and community members have denounced the policy in recent weeks, Atwood said that other Clatsop County residents benefit from the policy by protecting their land. City council members, meanwhile, criticized the merits behind the 77 elk-hunting tags awarded for the property in question, stating that the “broken fences” and “damaged pastures” used to obtain the tags have existed on the man’s property for decades.
“On the other side, there are people who have been experiencing damage, have been the victim of public safety incidents or are concerned about safety risks,” he said. “In the middle is ODFW, who is required to respond to these issues.”
The number of elk hunts permitted on a single landowner’s property also raised concerns that the property owner could be using the Oregon Landowner Damage Program as a business opportunity rather than a means of property protection. However, ODFW spokesperson Beth Quillian told KOIN 6 News that, to the agency’s knowledge, the property owner is not using the program for financial gain.”
“We regularly have this conversation with landowners and inform them that the purpose of damage tags is to reduce damage, not make money,” Quillian said. “If we found out that a landowner is making money from this, we would not issue damage tags. ODFW does not issue damage tags to landowners who charge hunters for access.”
Atwood told city councilors Monday that, during the three-year period, hunters killed an average of 26 elk per year on the property discussed at Monday’s meeting. None of the elk were hunted within Gearhart city limits. Despite the number of elk hunted in the past three years, Atwood said that the local population continues to grow.
“Local elk populations are robust and stable,” Atwood said. “Local ODFW staff conduct aerial elk surveys with a helicopter annually and often supplement those surveys with ground-based observations in late winter before bulls shed their antlers.”
The ODFW has not publicly released the name of the property owner, or the address associated with the property. Amid the public outcry, the ODFW said that the property owner had not received any tags for his property in 2023.
“As of now, we have not issued any more tags to that landowner,” Quillian said.