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Ranchers Struggle with Elk Depredation

Elk Depredation Threatens Cattle Industry Viability

Ranchers and state officials met in late September to discuss elk depredation in Butte, Custer and Lemhi counties.

Photo by Steve Ritter

Tension is building between ranchers and state wildlife managers due to marauding herds of elk and a lack of effective management tools.

Established ranches in Butte, Custer and Lemhi counties that didn’t have elk depredation problems until the mid-90’s and later, are under siege and could be facing a third consecutive difficult winter because hungry elk are eating haystacks, damaging crops, tearing down fences and threatening the future viability of ranches throughout the region.

Some ranchers angrily threatened to take matters into their own hands, during a recent meeting sponsored by the Idaho Farm Bureau, if the state doesn’t find a better way to manage the population. They simply cannot afford to feed the State’s elk herd and maintain their businesses.

Several ranchers stated they didn’t have elk on their property before wolf reintroduction in the mid 1990’s during the meeting / tour held in late September. The tour made stops in Moore, near Challis and near Salmon.

One rancher said when his livestock get loose, he’s held accountable. He’s been building eight-foot tall fences and wrapping his haystacks with straw bales to try to keep elk out and he wonders why the liability of taking care of the State’s elk falls on landowners.

Idaho Fish and Game Commissioners Derick Attebury and Jerry Meyers attended the tour but offered few comments aside from mentioning they enjoy elk hunting and eating venison. From the ranchers’ perspective there is a dearth of concern that comes from the hunting community regarding this problem. Hunters obviously enjoy large elk populations and Fish and Game profits from the sale of elk tags while ranchers pay dearly to keep the elk alive during the winter months.

One rancher from the Challis area, said he is out of patience waiting for the State to take care of the problem. It’s come down to his livelihood vs the State’s elk. He told those who attended the tour that his only remaining option is to violate the law and start killing the elk. Those attending included Fish and Game law enforcement officers, Fish and Game Deputy Director Ed Schriever and several state legislators.

Tom Curet, Idaho Fish and Game Salmon Regional supervisor, said it’s likely to take three to five years to bring the elk population down to the department’s established target level. In hunting unit 50, near Mackay, elk population estimates are near double the target level.

Reasons why the state’s elk management strategies aren’t working was a major topic of discussion, but new ideas and potential solutions are difficult to come by. Fish and Game officials support hunter harvest as a management tool, but many ranchers expressed concern and bad past experiences. In sum, most ranchers believe most hunters are ethical and capable, but it only takes one bad apple to create problems that exceed the value of hunting.

Custer County Rancher Steve Bachman said hazing and hunting are the main techniques in use, but neither are effective solutions. “Hunters killed about 20 elk on our place last year but when you have 400 elk it’s a drop in the bucket,” he said.

Bachman added that he won’t allow hazing on his property during bull elk season because of “slob hunters” and the fact that he doesn’t want his house, family employees etc. in the line of fire of irresponsible hunters.

The comment sheds light on the fact that some residents in the region enjoy having elk on their properties which creates a sanctuary that exacerbates the overall problem. This point is consistently raised by Fish and Game officials when discussing the problem.

Hazing is another tool in use, but with questionable results. The elk leave one ranch and run to another, tearing out fences along the way. One rancher joked that it’s much easier to haze the elk later in the winter after the fences are gone.

Lemhi County Rancher James Whittaker suggested allowing ranchers to sell elk tags provided to them by Idaho Fish and Game as a way to compensate for losses. In the past this idea has been met with major opposition from the hunting community. Yet hunters don’t object when Idaho Fish and Game auctions trophy big game tags for as much as $350,000.

Deputy Director Schriever explained that Landowner Appreciation Permits (LAP) program overlaps the controlled hunt program. Therefore, landowners must draw these permits, which is a bone of contention among some of the ranchers who spoke during the tour. Schriever said LAP tags for bull elk and buck mule deer are always fully subscribed, or in other words there is significant interest in those tags. However, for doe mule deer and cow elk, interest wanes and large numbers (thousands according to Schriever) of these tags are under-subscribed, or not drawn or purchased. Landowners shouldn’t have any problem drawing cow or doe tags, he said.

In addition, landowners with serious depredation problems are given depredation tags and those hunts generally take place in December or even as late in winter as January or February.

Whittaker said landowners should be given LAP tags commensurate with the damage they receive instead of holding a draw for the tags. He also criticized the Fish and Game department for being inconsistent and unfair with the awarding of elk tags to certain individuals but not others. Fish and Game officials at the meeting did not refute the claim.

Another landowner said he has drawn only one LAP tag for elk in the last 12 years and has never drawn a LAP tag for antelope although he “feeds 30 to 40,” every winter.

Ranchers also raised concern about wolf baiting. They believe wolf baiting, the same as bear baiting, could be a valuable management tool. Schriever said trapping rules allow for the use of bait but hunters cannot place bait under current rules. He added that a naturally occurring gut pile is not considered bait and hunters can use gut piles.

Meyers, the Fish and Game Commissioner representing the Salmon Region, said when the Commission considered wolf baiting earlier this year they received a barrage of email from animal rights groups from all over the world. They received 22,000 email messages in opposition to wolf baiting. He explained that the issue generates money for these groups and Commission members feared adopting the measure would empower the animal rights groups.

“We feared it would generate a lot of money for their war coffers and we may lose in court which could have spillover effects on bear baiting regulations,” he said. “We made the decision to pull back the wolf baiting bill because it’s not worth jeopardizing everything else we have in place.”

Idaho Farm Bureau lobbyist Dennis Tanikuni, said during the last legislative session, a bill was passed that increased big game hunting fees by $5 for residents and $10 for non-residents. That money goes into a depredation account that is used to buy fencing materials and reimburse landowners for other losses. When the account reaches a set limit, the funds go into a prevention account where the focus on depredation losses remains, rather than channeled into a general fund that could be spent elsewhere.

Yet another problem raised during the discussion was the ability of the elk to adapt to control strategies. Many ranchers said the animals have become nocturnal haystack raiders, making it difficult for hunters or hazing to work.

In spite of the economic hardship the ranchers are facing, most do not place blame solely on the Idaho Fish and Game Department. Many of them complimented the Fish and Game Department’s efforts in spite of the ineffectiveness in many cases. One rancher suggested creating management plans for individual ranches and allowing longer windows for control measures. Each property is unique and has individual challenges. “We need to get tags in time to deal with the problem before we have hundreds of elk on our property,” he said. “We need to make decisions for each property because they all have unique problems.”