Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Elk plan addresses crop damage

Agricultural depredation deemed limiting factor to local elk numbers

Express Staff Writer

Elk congregate on a Sun Valley hillside. Elk numbers are increasing to the north and east of the Wood River Valley, the Department of Fish and Game has reported. Photo by Roland Lane

     Though a statewide 10-year elk management plan approved by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission earlier this month includes more aggressive predator management, the emphasis in the Wood River Valley area is on reducing elk damage to agriculture.

     According to the plan, that damage is the most important factor limiting elk numbers in the two elk management zones—the Pioneer and the Smoky-Bennett Hills zones—that flank the valley.

     “The elk population could be higher if we could mitigate the damage elk do to crops and fencing,” Craig White, the department’s former elk plan coordinator, said in an interview.

     During a commission meeting on Jan. 16, department representatives stated that fluctuation in elk numbers varies considerably in different parts of the state. The department reported that statewide, 9.5 management zones are meeting population objectives, 11 exceed goals and 8.5 are below those goals.

     According to a story in the Twin Falls Times-News, the department stated that wolf predation and overharvest by hunters are prime causes of the decreases.

     White said elk numbers have generally decreased in the north and central parts of the state, while they have increased in southern and western areas.

     Randy Smith, Magic Valley Region wildlife manager, said in an interview that the Pioneer Zone, to the east and north of the Wood River Valley, is one of the zones that are exceeding goals. He said the elk population increased by about 60 percent between 2008 and 2013, when aerial surveys were conducted. He said the increase was primarily due to the department’s ending a hunt on yearling “spike” bull elk in the zone.

     The department’s website shows a population of 9,738 elk in the zone, up from 5,459 in 2008.

      Smith said the Smoky-Bennett Zone, to the west and south of the Wood River Valley, is included among those zones where the elk population is below target numbers. However, he said, that conclusion is based on a 2009 aerial survey, and more recent anecdotal evidence indicates that elk are doing better there. He said a survey scheduled for next winter will provide more concrete data.

     He said an antlerless hunt in the Smoky-Bennett Zone has been eliminated.

     Smith said the department had four winter elk feeding sites in that zone, in the South Fork of the Boise River drainage, but about five years ago noticed that the elk were not staying at the sites but were migrating south out of the mountains. He said the department is happy that the animals have adopted a more natural migration pattern, but the change has resulted in more agricultural damage. In Blaine County, the damage is concentrated in the Bellevue Triangle.

     Brad Lowe, the department’s Magic Valley Region wildlife biologist, said alfalfa seems to be the elk’s favorite crop, though the animals also eat wheat, barley and oats when the plants are still green. He said crop damage occurs primarily from July into November, when many of the herds migrate farther south. He said elk in the northern part of the triangle continue doing damage into the winter by eating stacked hay and livestock feed.

     The department’s 10-year elk management plan states that hunting will be used as the primary tool to reduce depredation levels in the Pioneer and Smoky-Bennett zones. However, the plan proposes several other strategies to address those impacts:

  • Hire seasonal employees to work with landowners to fix fences, haze problem animals and issue kill permits.
  • Provide fencing to protect hay stacks.
  • Draft agreements with landowners to provide winter habitat.
  • Collaborate with federal land managers to assure that range conditions on public land provide adequate forage for elk, including by reducing invasive plants.
  • Allow early-season “green field” hunts to reduce elk numbers on private property.

     Under Idaho law, farmers and ranchers can be compensated by the Department of Fish and Game for crop damage done by wildlife. However, they are required to try to prevent damage through fencing or by hazing or killing problem animals. In some situations, the department provides scare-away devices, including propane cannons, firecrackers and 12-gauge shotgun shells called cracker shells.

     Landowners must also have allowed reasonable public access for hunting on their property during the preceding hunting season.

     Department regulations allow for special “landowner-permission” hunts, in which the landowner chooses hunters to whom tags can be sold to hunt on their property. Lowe said two such hunts were conducted on 15 properties in the Bellevue Triangle last year—one from Aug. 1-Oct. 31 and a second from Nov. 1-Dec. 31. He said 102 tags were sold for the two hunts. He said the 65 hunters who have so far reported, which they must do by the end of March, have indicated close to a 50 percent success ratio, with 34 elk killed.

     In 2013, the only Blaine County landowner to receive compensation for crop damage was south-county farmer Larry Schoen, who is also a county commissioner. According to department records, Schoen was paid $29,535.75.

     “Hundreds of elk are spending a lot of time on his property,” Smith said.

     Lowe said hunters on Schoen’s property, where neighboring homes are not far away, were initially using short-range weapons such as muzzle-loaders, shotguns and bows, but last year the department paid for and erected two 12-foot-high elevated blinds so hunters can shoot at a downward angle.

     “That allowed people to far more safely use rifles on the property,” he said.

     Statewide in 2013, only one other landowner was paid compensation—$63,865 for damage done on a property near Hill City, west of Fairfield. So far in 2014, the department has paid $5,625, to a property owner near Bellevue.

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