Environmental commentary: Old MacDonald had an elk?

Can elk and ranchers coexist? The elk population is showing interest in the farmers’ crops and creating financial problems; How do we succeed in making us happy and the elk happy?

The Kootenay region of British Columbia 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 numbers in certain areas across British Columbia and North America, especially in areas of high cultivation, causing significant financial loss to farmers.

Wayne Ray, a Smithers farmer, says, “Elk affect the sustainability of livestock farms and crop farming in most areas.”

Abundant amounts of hay and grain on farms means that many ungulates, including elk and deer, find easier access to food in urban areas rather than foraging and foraging in the woods. Because of their herding behavior, sharp hooves, and intense grazing tendencies, they have caused financial problems and logistical headaches for many farmers across North America.

Farmers will accept the loss of some crops as normal but worry that if elk numbers increase near their lands, it could threaten their livelihoods. In Ontario and Manitoba, elk have damaged fences and crops, costing the farming industry up to $250,000 annually.

With less predation in populated areas, and more crops for feasting, there has also been an increase in non-migratory elk (elk that do not move locations seasonally). Non-migratory elk numbers have increased from an estimate of 5 percent in the 1990s to 37 percent in 2010, putting enormous grazing pressure in the lower elevations, where most agricultural farms are located.

Elk has few effects on established crops, says Albertson, a wildlife biologist from Vanderhoof, but is detrimental to new seedlings that are more susceptible to trampling and grazing. One of the contributing factors to the habituation of elk and other wildlife to human comforts is urbanization and the reduction of their natural habitat.

The Kootenay Elk Management Plan from 2014 addressed the problem by trying to reduce populations in certain areas such as the Elk Valley. They aim to do this by increasing limited entry hunting regulations for hornless elk depending on population and predation pressure.

The BC Department of Agriculture advises on scare tactics to reduce wildlife conflict including noise devices (projectile launchers with audible projectiles like squeals, hands and air horns) and visual devices such as scarecrows, scary-eye balloons or a flash bar. These recommendations are not specific to elk but may be effective in certain situations. Care must be taken with these measures not to disturb neighboring property or farms, including safety precautions with any extruded soundmaker.

Creston wildlife biologist Marc-Andre Bucher has found lucrative alfalfa crops effective in reducing the damage caused by elk on farms.

“While this tactic works well in the spring and on certain types of crops, a combination of management strategies is needed given the large amount of farmland in the Creston Valley and annual fluctuations in elk numbers,” Bucher says.

He also noted that farmers in some areas are using 12-foot fencing, which has worked, though it disrupts movement and could result in injury to elk and other wildlife.

Although these large ungulates bring in tourists and play an important role in maintaining healthy ecosystems, the economic implications must also be considered, especially with local food suppliers.

In certain regions across Canada, management strategies are monitored, but there is a general lack of data on the effectiveness of these strategies. Appropriate use of deterrents, placement of farms, available wildlife habitat, and ethical hunting all play a role in management plans. These factors, including public and agricultural education, must be modified and delegated to affected areas so that farmers and elk can thrive.

Kristin Craddock and Skye Irwin are second year Recreation, Fish & Wildlife students at Selkirk College, Castlegar.

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