The Dec. 19, 2019, report by KUOW’s Eilis O’Neill on the Skagit elk issue demonstrates some of the worst about today’s media. It is a false, misleading and damaging report that works to create discord between neighbors. It mischaracterizes the problem of a large herd of elk in a populated area with schools, homes and farms as a matter of farmers versus Native Americans and treaty rights.
Here is the simple truth: Elk that were wrongly imported into a populated area are threatening school children, motorists, homeowners and farmers.
The tragic history of Native American rights being trampled on is one the farming community certainly sympathizes with. That, however, is not the story when we talk about elk in the Skagit. This is a story of an attempt to reintroduce elk to the region gone horribly wrong due to government ineptitude. It is not just farmers, but parents and the public as a whole now paying the consequences.
Instead of telling this story though, O’Neill sensationalized it into a “cowboys and Indians” issue. She ignored the basic storyline and attempted to pit farmers against the tribes where there was no need to do so. The headline is pure clickbait and completely distorts the facts by taking the comments of a leader in the farm community out of context and editing them to make him appear that he disrespects tribe members and their treaty rights. Anyone who knows Bill Schmidt knows this is simply not his character nor the way he is attempting to deal with the very significant safety issues.
So, instead of dealing with this in a thoughtful manner that can bring about good public discourse, O’Neill has attempted to create conflict between two groups: farmers and tribes. Thanks to the mischaracterization, Bill Schmidt is facing abuse on social media particularly now that the local story has been aired nationally on NPR. While this might be delightful for KUOW’s and NPR’s ratings, is this really what we should be aiming for?
Elk are beautiful animals, and they deserve to have habitat where they can thrive, but they were never intended to be dropped near the homes, schools and farms that populate the narrow valley near the river. The small groups that were imported beginning in the 1940s have grown to about 2,200 animals in the Nooksack-Skagit range. The problem is that several hundred of them have settled into the populated area near the valley floor and have stayed there. Hazing and other methods to move them have proven unsuccessful. This conflict area is less than one percent of the herd’s range.
As this video shows, just about everyday school buses in the Sedro-Woolley and Concrete school districts have near accidents with these elk. The superintendents, bus drivers and parents are pleading with the state fish and wildlife department to do what leaders of this agency have acknowledged needs to be done: move or severely limit the size of the herd.
It is true, pressure from tribal leaders have prevented the state from taking the action required by law. However, this is not a matter of treaty rights, it is a matter of public safety. That is what is frustrating to the parents of these school children, homeowners, and farmers in a community that every day faces the dangers posed by these large and increasingly fearless animals.
It is very easy for those in our cities not aware of the situation to form opinions not consistent with the facts. If it involves beautiful wildlife it becomes all the more compelling. We wonder, how reporter O’Neill and the producers at KUOW would write the story if these animals with massive antlers and showing no fear of humans were in their backyard or grazing on the ballfields at the schools where their children attend? How would they react if they frequently had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting one? What would they do if the streets or freeway they drive on were the scenes of frequent serious accidents as these animals roam where they were never intended to be?
What will change this situation before a real tragedy occurs? First, we must understand this is not about farmers and tribes in conflict. This is simply an issue of public safety and justice for property damage. Why does our community need to pay the price for government mismanagement? Who will accept responsibility if or when a child is seriously hurt or worse? Will government officials who are only pretending to take serious action accept that responsibility? Will those pressuring our state leaders to not take needed action accept that responsibility?
Second, the media must understand the consequences of irresponsible and misleading journalism. Mr. Schmidt was goaded into a confrontation and his comments were taken out of context. Has KUOW and NPR stopped to think about the damage done to the relationships in this small community when they report in such an indefensible way? All our communities deserve better than the irresponsible and harmful way this story was reported.
An earlier version of this article stated that the elk were imported 40 years ago. It has been updated to reflect that elk were imported beginning in the 1940s.