Friday, March 18, 2016

Idaho ranchers struggle to protect pastures, haystacks

In “Gem State Producer” March 2016, Vol. 20, Issue 2, Idaho Farm Bureau

By John Thompson

Ranchers in the Lemhi Valley are under siege. Hungry elk are raiding haystacks every night causing tens of thousands of dollars in damages. Elk, deer and in some cases moose are feeding on haystacks, stealing and wasting tons of alfalfa set aside for winter feeding of livestock.

Ranchers in Custer County, Clearwater County and several others are also under pressure and incurring steep losses. Along the Lemhi River from Leadore to Carmen nearly every haystack is surrounded with battered wire fence panels and bales are gouged out along the bottom row where elk have pulled the hay out and weakened the stacks. Some stacks are close to toppling.

Others have fallen, creating significant amounts of wasted hay. Most ranchers are sympathetic to the starving animals’ plight. Yet frustrations are mounting because the Idaho Fish and Game Department’s remedies are less than adequate, according to ranchers who attended a public hearing organized by the Lemhi County Farm Bureau. During the meeting, held Feb. 3 at Salmon City Hall, ranchers speculated that wolves are contributing to the problem. They believe wolf predation is concentrating elk in low-lying areas.

Idaho Fish and Game Regional Supervisor Tom Curet confirmed that wolves have caused elk behavior to change. “I will say that wolves have changed the behavior of elk in this area, there’s no question about that,” Curet said. “We hunt wolves now from August 30 to March 31. We also have trappers and there is a lot of pressure on wolves right now. Hunters and trappers are keeping wolf numbers much more moderate than they were eight or 10 years ago.”

Idaho Fish and Game has several remedies to help landowners protect their crops and haystacks from depredating big game, including hazing, providing fencing materials, depredation hunting and landowner appreciation hunting tags. However, ranchers at the meeting expressed frustration at nearly every remedy. Deep snow came early and has remained throughout much of the winter.

Several ranchers said they have never seen this many elk congregated in the Lemhi Valley. Curet said elk counts from last winter showed the region is meeting population objectives for bulls and exceeding objectives for cows. Idaho Fish and Game is currently flying helicopters in the Salmon Region counting elk but the statistics were not available during the Feb. 3 meeting.

When ranchers raised the question about feeding the elk and attempting to bait them away from haystacks, Curet said the Department’s first priority is to protect stored hay. He implored landowners to contact Fish and Game as soon as elk become a problem.

Fish and Game has spent over $50,000 since Christmas on wire panels and other fencing materials to protect haystacks. However, the wire panels surrounding many haystacks in the Lemhi Valley are battered and bent. One rancher said it’s nearly impossible to keep hungry elk out of a haystack. They push on the fences until they create a hole and then crawl through it. Most of the damage is occurring after dark.

Hazing is one remedy that works temporarily, but then the elk just become someone else’s problem. Rancher Mike Kosler said he could haze elk out of his stack-yards, but he knows they will just move on to his neighbor’s haystack. Another rancher said he has hazed elk for several miles using four-wheelers, but they make it back to his ranch nearly as fast as he does.

In a subsequent meeting held at the Idaho Statehouse on Feb. 17, Ed Schreiber, Idaho Fish and Game Deputy Director of Field Operations, said the Department has seven employees dedicated to dealing with depredating wildlife. They receive an average of 700 depredation complaints annually.

This year so far there have been 236 depredation complaints, with 189 of them involving elk. The Department has issued 76 kill permits and authorized 22 depredation hunts. They are currently operating five emergency feeding sites for elk with about 650 animals total at those sites.

Schreiber said, according to Idaho Statute, “in a nutshell, prevention of depredation is defined as a responsibility of landowners to prevent and mitigate damages.” The Department collects money from hunting tag sales to pay for depredation prevention and compensation. In 2015 they collected $655,000 but the cost of the program eclipsed that amount and money had to be pulled from the state’s general fund to make up the shortfall.

Over the last 10 years the average depredation cost to the state has been $245,000 and they have averaged 30 claims on damage to stored crops. Idaho Cattle Association Executive Director Wyatt Prescott said his organization wants elk managed away from private cattle operations. “Ultimately this industry has challenges going through the compensation program,” Prescott said.

“The goal is to manage wildlife away from the common threat. Many landowners enjoy having wildlife on their property but we’ve had two feet of snow all winter and around the haystacks the elk manure makes it resemble a CAFO. We don’t necessarily want compensation. We want to manage elk away from the conflict areas for ranchers,” Prescott said. 

Curet said the Department is reluctant to establish new winter feeding grounds for elk because of the potential for brucellosis transmission and other disease concerns. “Our main goal is prevention,” Curet said. “I also want to mention that you need to contact us if you are having problems. By state law the operator has to report the damage and then we have to respond before we can compensate. Winter feeding of elk is a dangerous prospect but if we need to bait them away then we would entertain that possibility. Our first priority is to help you protect haystacks. Then we try to harass the elk off and if that doesn’t work we start killing elk.”

Lemhi County Farm Bureau President James Whittaker said the Fish and Game compensation program doesn’t work. “It doesn’t function and it’s not workable so none of us want to apply for it,” Whittaker said. “We also have frustration with the landowner appreciation tag system. Basically what you’re doing is trying to force it down our neck when we are the ones carrying the animals.”

Whittaker said hunting pressure forces elk onto private land in the fall and wolves also contribute. If landowners were allowed to market the landowner appreciation tags that would push elk off the private land and make them available to hunters which would reduce herd sizes. “The legislature needs to change the compensation law and the landowner appreciation tag law and compensation needs to add up to 100 percent of damage incurred,” he said. “Those tags need to be given out in a number commensurate with damage to private property and the property owner should be able to market those tags as he chooses.”

The Lemhi County Farm Bureau is attempting to collect data related to damages this winter. County Board member Wes Mackay said an elk eats about 20 pounds of forage per day. Landowners are encouraged to survey their damages by number of elk counted feeding on haystacks or in private pastures, multiply by 20 pounds per day and report the numbers to the County Farm Bureau office.

Other ranchers who attended the meeting in Salmon expressed frustration with the hunting options provided by Idaho Fish and Game. Hunting on private property is a much different experience than many Idaho hunters expect. With barns and other outbuildings, as well as neighbors’ homes often nearby, it requires the rancher to oversee the hunts carefully in many instances. 

Yet guiding hunters on private land requires a guide license. Either way, ranchers say it takes up a lot of their time to make the hunts happen and after elk are shot it doesn’t necessarily alleviate the problem. Will Naillon, Idaho Fish and Game Commissioner for the Salmon Region, said it’s time to start talking about a long term solution to this problem.

“The Commission has to look at social acceptance and carrying capacity of the land and the relationship between sportsmen who think there is no such thing as too many elk and ranchers who are trying to make a living,” he said. “If we end up with an elk population that is beyond social acceptance we need to do something but a lot of this is set in Idaho code and these things can be changed. I’d rather see a long term solution than paying out huge depredation claims.”

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