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Hunting Illustrated Summer 2002: Cover Story

Home > Magazine > Summer 2002 Issue > Cover Story > Elk Depredation
Cover Story: Elk, Elk and More Elk
Elk Depredation - License to Kill
by David King
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"Elk, elk and more elk!" This is what many people are saying around the West. For most hunters we can't get enough of the increasing elk and the expanded opportunities to hunt these magnificent creatures. However something good of one thing usually leads to some bad as well. Whether you know it or not, elk are being killed - and it is not during the hunting season. Due to the increase of elk populations surging in many areas throughout the West, problems are increasing and the consequences are fatal. Elk are big animals and it doesn't take much for a group of 'runaways' to claim an area which was not intended or meant for elk to call home. Elk
depredation is alleged property damage caused by wild, free roaming elk. Depredation hunts occur when the Fish and Game respond to complaints by landowners about alleged property damage and issue out anytime of the year a 'license to kill' as many elk as deemed appropriate.

Is elk depredation getting out of control? Who is to blame? Are the right steps being taken to keep the hunters, landowners, environmentalists, cattle ranchers, wildlife watchers, and whoever else sees fit to jump into the heated debate happy? Let's look at a few situations going on right now with elk depredation.

Snowflake, Arizona   

Snowflake, Arizona - Local farmer Otto Mills, who owns a 50-acre farm near Snowflake, reports to the Arizona Game and Fish on problems due to elk depredation. Mills started raising alfalfa in the mid-1970s and the elk began visiting his farm in 1995. The elk graze on his farm from mid-April until sometime in October. He gave calculations regarding the amount of feed 17 elk eat per night and per season. This can amount to over 55,000 pounds of feed costing over $5,000 a season. As a small farmer, this has been devastating on his bottom line in his struggle to make a living.

Weiser, Idaho

Weiser, Idaho - More than 170 elk formerly residing in the Weiser Cove area have been relocated to Hells Canyon, some 65 air miles from their former home. In total, more than 230 animals have been removed from the area where depredation problems had reached critical levels and elk tolerance by local landowners had reached its limit. The trapping and relocation effort was initiated after other, more traditional methods designed to significantly reduce the elk population in Weiser Cove failed. The Fish and Game tried everything: depredation hunts, issuing kill permits, hazing techniques, and even a five-month hunting season. However, all of these things did not reduce the herd enough to cut down on depredation problems and still left 400-450 elk in the area. "We were able to relocate 175 elk from the Cove area to Hells Canyon," Fish and Game regional supervisor Don Wright said. "All told, more than 230 elk were removed from the area and we're optimistic that future elk depredation problems in Weiser Cove will be significantly reduced as a result of this effort."

Mt. Pleasant, Utah

Mt. Pleasant, Utah - 30-40 bull elk have been killed along highway 89 between Mt. Pleasant and Manti. Highway 89 is known as 'slaughterville highway' due to the amount of deer and elk vehicle collisions. However, these bull elk were not killed by vehicles, but through depredation hunts authorized by the Fish and Game. These elk have been dubbed 'problem' elk, according to officials, and could have been taken care of four to five years ago when there was only a handful of elk migrating into the local farmlands. The elk were not dealt with properly and the resulting small herd took up residency by the highway. During the fall and winter months they cross the busy highway to forage on the lush alfalfa fields. Many of the locals are furious over the killings and don't understand why there isn't a better solution to this issue.

Why is this becoming such a heated debate? All 30 plus depredation hunts included mature bulls, many of them six-point trophies. Only if you killed a six-point bull or greater would you lose your bonus points for the unit. However, those who killed a four-or five-point bull or smaller still retained their bonus points. This is part of the coveted Manti unit and is a difficult bull tag to draw - usually requiring an average of 6-8 bonus points. The Fish and Game have already vetoed a proposition to build a fence. They are also refusing to issue landowner tags, which could help control the problem while generating important funds for helping the elk. A landowner could easily get from $5,000-$8,000 per tag to help compensate any crop damage. The Fish and Game is planning to issue another 35 bull elk depredation tags for 2002, but there is confusion as to why they don't simply issue more bull tags during the general season. It seems the Fish and Game feel the best way is to simply dispose of the elk themselves and eliminate the problem firsthand.

Lincoln National Forest - New Mexico

Lincoln National Forest (game unit 34), New Mexico - An ongoing controversy about whether elk or cattle have more right to graze on public lands. So far hundreds of elk have been killed because the 'cattle vs. elk' issue is so hot. It is actually a complicated debate, with many facets, depending on what special interest group you are siding with. Cattle ranchers are worried about the increase of elk numbers on grazing land and are complaining that the elk are 'eating' them out of business. Some ranchers have gone so far as to kill any elk that crosses onto their property - and doing so legally. You see, under the Jennings Law, landowners can take depredation complaints into their own hands if they are not satisfied with solutions posed by the Fish and Game. What is the Fish and Game doing to control this? They have announced that they are going to decrease the elk herd by 75 percent and knock the herd down from 4,000 to 1,000 head. While a few local landowners applauded the measure, many more folks are concerned with the 'slaughter' because of the tremendous impact on individuals as well as the local economy. The Fish and Game justified their numbers by claiming the goal of 1,000 elk was an original number for the unit taken back in 1998. They still feel this is the carrying capacity for the unit due to the amount of damage on resources and grazing lands caused by the elk. Why is the Fish and Game acting upon this conclusion now and not back when the report was first completed? They admit that they have known about this for three years. Are they only acting upon this because it is now a crisis situation?

Cattle Damage

What about damage by cattle? This is where the debate gets a little sticky. Cattle ranchers want elk off the lands so they can have more range for feeding their cattle. The carrying capacity of the land applies to all animals, therefore the more elk on the land the less cattle that can be allowed to graze. Do cattle or elk have more of a right to our public lands? Elk eat less forage than cattle and they will graze in timbered areas whereas cattle stick to the meadows where most of the damage has been measured. There is no doubt the ranchers need to protect their own property and livelihood. However, are the cattle ranchers driving the elk into their lush green farmlands because their own cattle are over-eating the forage on the public lands and
leaving nothing for the elk?

The Path

As long as we have healthy elk herds, depredation is going to be an ongoing struggle we will be forced to deal with whether we like it or not. As hunters, we want the herds to grow and capitalize on a great hunting opportunity that will be managed properly for years to come. Another problem not yet addressed is the ongoing drought that the West has had to contend with. A common denominator in depredation is water. This year's drought has pushed thousands of elk out of their traditional habitat and on to greener pastures, which unfortunately are private farm lands. Farmers and ranchers need to be protected, but are we doing enough and doing it the right way to preserve what is rightfully theirs? Will peaking elk herds turn today into the 'good old days' of elk hunting only to be doomed by mismanagement, lack of habitat, and attitudes of special interest groups that will lead the future of elk down a dark path similar to mule deer? Can we make room for elk by supporting forest management efforts aimed at
thinning our forest back to a healthy condition where it will provide more forage for wildlife and cattle, and water for all of us? The current system is not working. For those of us who really care about this matter, it is time speak up.

----- Continued -----> Elk vs. Deer

Cover Story...More Articles

-----> Trophy Bull Elk 

-----> Elk Depredation - License to Kill (you are here)

-----> Elk vs. Deer

-----> The Other Elk

-----> Drought - What is Happening

-----> Elk Reintroduction - Bringing Them Back

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