By Bill Schaefer
For Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
Who knew that elk would have an insatiable appetite for Idaho’s famous potatoes?
Growing potatoes is a tough enough occupation in Idaho without the additional interference of up to 500 head of elk grazing on your spud fields and compacting the soil in the process during the summer and fall.
It was an expensive lesson for Don McFarland during the 2018 growing season. Crop damage to 300 acres of organic potatoes and 800 acres of organic kamut, an ancient grain, resulted in McFarland filing a claim for $1.03 million to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Expendable Big Game Depredation Account this past year.
The claim was by far the largest ever filed in the history of IDFG’s depredation account. While the claim was paid in full, it resulted in new legislation being passed this year that places a cap on the amount paid on any single claim not to exceed 10 percent of the account’s annual appropriation.
McFarland’s Little Camas Ranch is located in Elmore County, above the Anderson Ranch Reservoir’s southeast side, just past the Little Camas Reservoir, with the Trinity Mountain Range to the north and the Soldier Mountain Range to the northeast, at an elevation of 5,000 feet.
When McFarland bought the 3,885-acre homestead in 1996, it was a dryland grain farm with 400 irrigated acres. Since then, he has drilled a number of wells to provide irrigation for 2,817 acres.
McFarland, who had been growing conventional potatoes since the early 1960s, decided seven years ago to convert the Little Camas Ranch into an organic farm, concentrating on growing organic spuds, grain and alfalfa.
“We started with five acres, just as a trial, and we increased to 15 and then 50 and now the whole farm is organic,” he said.
In August 2018, McFarland signed an agreement with Wada Farms, located in Bingham County, to provide organic potatoes.
Three years ago, he converted a dehydrated potato plant in Glenns Ferry into an organic packing shed to sort, wash, bag and box his and other growers’ organic potatoes. He then trucks them to Wada’s warehouse in Pingree for shipment across the U.S.
Kevin Stanger, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Wada Farms Marketing Group, said the organic potato market has shown tremendous growth in Idaho during the past five years but that it still represents a very small segment of Idaho’s total acreage of potatoes.
“It’s grown many times over (but) in comparison to everything else, it’s a pretty small blip on the radar,” he said.
Stanger said Wada relies on McFarland to meet a majority of its demand for organic potatoes.
McFarland is working closely with IDFG to find ways to keep the elk from damaging his fields in 2019.
Mike McDonald, IDFG regional wildlife manager at the Magic Valley regional office in Jerome, has been working with McFarland the past two years to try to keep the wildlife damages to a minimum.
McDonald said that the farmland lies right in the heart of a migration corridor for elk and deer.
“It’s kind of the perfect storm,” he said. “You have this fantastic piece of property that’s located in a really cool area that has lots of groceries and lots of elk.”
“The piece of property is a wonderful piece of property. Don and his family do a fantastic job of managing it,” McDonald said. “Don takes pride in that he’s a real advocate for wildlife. It’s not unusual to go up there in the middle of summer and see multiple broods of sage grouse and mule deer and waterfowl and then a whole bunch of elk.”
According to McDonald, IDFG initially tried using various hazing techniques to discourage the elk from McFarland’s fields but with little success. They explored using fencing but it was impractical due to the size of the farm and the negative impact fencing has on sage grouse.
“Sage grouse don’t navigate fences very well,” he said. “You’re left with that lethal option. Going in and removing animals with the hope that you are removing a few targeted animals and that the rest of them decide this isn’t the best place to be right now.”
McDonald estimates that from July to early October, around 80 elk were lethally removed.
This coming year, McDonald said they will try changing their methodology and be more strategic in deploying lethal measures in an effort to cut back on depredation and reduce monetary claims.
John Guthrie, IDFG’s Magic Valley landowner/sportsman coordinator, will be coordinating these efforts. As part of his master’s thesis, he is studying treatment options to alter elk depredatory behavior in cropland.
“We are going to include that property in my project as a treatment site, where we will lethally remove elk from that herd,” Guthrie said. “Hopefully, it will take two years of that to make those elk realize that it’s not a place that they’re supposed to be.”
Guthrie will begin collaring elk this summer to monitor their behavior and follow the herd. With the collared elk, Guthrie will be able to know precisely when the herd returns to McFarland’s farm to forage and then begin to institute lethal measures.
“We’re not expecting this to be the only thing that solves the problem. It’s a very high priority for everybody,” Guthrie said.
McFarland expressed a degree of frustration about the damages he’s incurred but at the same time he’s seeking a collaborative resolution with IDFG.
“It’s not our responsibility to manage these elk herds, it’s a state responsibility,” he said. “We’ve worked closely with Fish and Game to try and solve the problem and we will again this year. We have to do our best to keep the elk out of here.”