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Southeast Idaho farmers struggle with elk depredation

By Bill Schaefer

For Idaho Farm Bureau Federation     

GENEVA – Farmers in the southeast corner of Idaho near the Wyoming border are experiencing increasing depredation of their crops by elk herds and they’re frustrated by the combination of growing financial losses and increasing numbers of elk in their area.

While there are regions in Idaho with low elk herd populations, such is not the case in the Idaho Department of Fish and Game elk management zones of 76 and 66A, which together form what is known as the Diamond Creek elk zone.

Between 2015 and 2017, three farmers in an area around Geneva have filed depredation claims with IDFG totaling $61,670.

IDFG has a policy to reimburse private landowners, farmers, ranchers, fruit growers or even beekeepers, for financial losses caused by wildlife. The Idaho legislature in 2017 passed a bill that increases IDFG’s financial resources to compensate for wildlife damage to crops and forage.

Zach Lockyer, IDFG’s Southeast Region wildlife population manager, said there are just over 5,000 elk wintering in the Diamond Creek elk zone. Lockyer estimates that 2,860 of them are cow elk and he said he would like to see the cow elk population at 2,200.

The Geneva elk herd is estimated to be 600 and is counted as part of the Diamond Creek population.

“We recognize we’ve got a problem here,” Lockyer said about the Geneva herd. “There’s not one thing that is going to fix it. We’re going to have to be creative and it’s probably going to have to be a combination of creative depredation hunts (and) kill permits (and) there’s going to have to be a variety of measures to get those elk to a point where they’re tolerable for the landowners.”      

Carson Price and his son, J.C. Price, are a little frustrated and aggravated with elk herds feasting on grain and hay on their 1,800 acre farm.

He and his son grow 500 acres of alfalfa, 300 acres of meadow hay, 200 acres of oats and 200 acres of barley, with the remaining acreage in pasture for 50 head of cattle that J.C. Price raises.

Carson Price received $11,460 in 2017 for a depredation claim from IDFG and he recently filed a claim for just under $15,000 for losses in 2018.      

He said the financial compensation covers the operation’s crop loss but it doesn’t always cover the ancillary losses incurred by damage to his fencing and other materials. 

“On top of that we have customers, repeat customers, and if we don’t supply them with hay they have to go someplace else to get it,” said J.C. Price. “If we can’t meet our customers’ needs then that hurts long term as well as short term.”

The elk come down from the mountains in July and August and feed on the grain in the fields prior to harvest and the start of hunting season. The elk continue to feed on stored bales of alfalfa and grain hay through the winter months on the Price farm.

“It’s good to have a herd of elk around but we have too many,” Carson Price said. “I don’t have a problem with having elk around, I have a problem with them eating me out of house and home.”     

Price would like to see IDFG combine hunts to allow hunters with a bull elk tag to take a cow elk if they can’t find a bull. 

“Fish and Game has been very good at selling tags but now we have to convince Fish and Game to start harvesting along with selling tags,” he said.         

Rao Tueller is a dry land farmer who grows primarily alfalfa on about 400 acres. He has filed depredation claims the past three years totaling $11,410.

Tueller would like to have winter hunts when the elk are present.  

“It’s the cow population that needs to go down,” he said. “There’s way too many cows. There’s not many hunters who want cows.”

He said access to elk is a problem because during the hunting season the elk tend to seek refuge on private property where hunting is not allowed.

In a recent meeting in Montpelier with farmers and ranchers on this issue, Merritt Horsmon, IDFG’s Southeast Region wildlife biologist, said that an additional factor that has compounded IDFG’s elk management strategy is that some large landowners don’t allow hunting on their property and the elk use that property as a refuge between sunrise and sunset, the legal time for hunting.  

“There’s very little movement of those elk except from ten at night to four in the morning,” Horsmon said. “Hunters are our best tool but we may have to get farther out of our normal box in thinking to get those elk that are doing the damage.”

He said the first step in depredation prevention is hazing the wildlife to keep them off the property.

However, he added, hazing hasn’t worked with the Geneva herd and the next step is lethal removal of elk from the property through depredation hunts, landowner permission hunts or greenfield hunts, which are early hunts, before the regular hunting season.

Depredation hunts have been used in zones 76 and 66A but neither LPH or greenfield hunts have been used previously.

Horsmon would like to strategically kill elk when they first come into the fields in late July and early August.

“We know exactly the elk we want to kill then and they’re there,” he said. “We talked about the LPH and the greenfield hunts and I think that those would be the tools we need to use. We’ve used greenfield hunts in other parts of the state and they’ve been highly successful in reducing elk numbers and depredation.”                   

John Guthrie, IDFG’s landowner and sportsman coordinator for the Magic Valley region, said that he has seen “pretty decent success rates” using landowner permission hunts in elk management zones 44, 45 and 49 in the Magic Valley region.

“They are very surgical,” Guthrie said of the success of landowner permission hunts in lowering elk populations.

IDFG’s bi-annual review of wildlife rules and regulations is this spring and Toby Boudreau, IDFG assistant chief of wildlife, said his department will be looking at any and all ways to solve the overpopulation of elk in specific areas around the state.

The bi-annual review will include public meetings around the state.        

Following a public comment period on proposals to address issues, IDFG commissioners will then set up new rules and regulations for the next two years.         

“I get the frustration that they’re expressing,” Lockyer said of the impacted landowners in the Diamond Creek area. “We very much recognize that they’re in a tough spot and we’re going to help as much as we can.”

He said IDFG’s best tool for reducing a population that is over objective is hunter harvest.

“So, this year we’ll be looking at some additions to the hunting seasons, not just in Geneva but in the whole zone, to allow people to harvest more elk,” he said.