Can elk and farmers coexist? Populations of elk are showing interest in farmers’ crops and creating financial problems; how do we manage to keep us and the elk happy?
The Kootenay region of B.C. is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including the second largest species in the deer family, the Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni). Studies have shown a steady increase in elk populations in certain regions across B.C. and North America, especially in areas of high agriculture, which is causing farmers major financial loss.
Wayne Ray, a rancher from Smithers, says, “The elk are affecting the sustainability of the cattle ranches and growing crops in most areas.”
The abundant quantities of hay and grain on farms means that many ungulates, including elk and deer, are finding easy access to food in urban areas rather than foraging and browsing in the forest. Due to their herd behavior, sharp hooves, and heavy grazing tendencies, they have caused financial issues and logistical headaches for many farmers across North America.
Farmers will accept some crop loss as normal but worry that if elk populations near their land increase, it could threaten their livelihood. In Ontario and Manitoba, elk have inflicted damages to fences and crops costing the farming industry up to $250,000 annually.
With a decrease in predation in human populated areas, and plenty of crops for feasting, there has also been an increase in non-migratory elk (elk that do not move locations seasonally). Non-migratory elk populations have increased from an estimation of 5 per cent in the 1990s to 37 per cent in 2010, which resulted in immense grazing pressure in lower elevations, where most agricultural farms reside.
A wildlife biologist from Vanderhoof, Albertson, says that elk have minimal impacts on well-established crops, but are detrimental to new seedlings which are more vulnerable to trampling and grazing. A contributing factor in elk and other wildlife becoming so accustomed to human comforts is caused by urbanization and the reduction of their natural habitat.
The Kootenay Elk Management Plan from 2014 has approached the problem by attempting a population reduction in certain areas such as the Elk Valley. They aim to do this by increasing limited-entry hunting regulations for antlerless elk depending on the population count and predation pressure.
The BC Ministry of Agriculture offers advice on scare-tactics to reduce wildlife conflict including noise devices (shell launchers with audible shells such as screechers or bangers, clapping hands, air horns), and visual devices such as scarecrows, scare-eye balloons or flash tape. These recommendations are not specifically for elk but may be effective in certain situations. Care should be taken with these measures to not disturb neighbouring properties or farms, including safety precautions with any projectile sound-maker.
Creston Wildlife Biologist Marc-Andre Beaucher has found alfalfa lure crops effective to reduce elk-caused damage on farms.
“While this tactic works well in the spring and on certain crop types, a combination of management strategies is required due to the large amount of farmland in the Creston Valley and annual fluctuations in elk population”, says Beaucher.
He also mentioned farmers in some areas use 12-foot-tall fencing, which has been successful, although it disrupts movement and has the potential for injury to elk and other wildlife.
Although these large ungulates bring in tourists and play a significant role in maintaining healthy ecosystems, economic impacts must also be considered, especially with local food suppliers.
In certain regions across Canada, management strategies are being monitored, but there is an overall lack of data on the effectiveness of these strategies. Appropriate use of deterrent tactics, placement of farms, available wildlife habitat, and ethical hunting are all factors that play a role in management plans. These factors, including public and agricultural education should be adjusted and delegated to affected areas so that farmers and elk can both thrive.
Kristen Cradock and Skye Irwin are second year Recreation, Fish and Wildlife students at Castlegar’s Selkirk College.