County and Fish and Game discuss elk problem

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The problem of large numbers of elk getting into haystacks and cattle feeding grounds during winter was the main topic of discussion between Custer County Commissioners, members of the county’s Natural Resource Advisory Committee (NRAC) and Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) officials last week.

IDFG Director Virgil Moore, Veterinarian Mark Drew and Salmon Region Supervisor Tom Curet talked to the commissioners about possible solutions to the growing problem of destructive elk tearing down fences, depredating ranch haystacks and pushing beef cows and calves off their feed. The department has tried several things and is putting more options into play, Curet told The Challis Messenger this week.

Past and future actions include hiring hazers like Chuck Felton to chase elk off private property, increasing the amount of elk panels to fence the critters out of haystacks and increasing the number of cow elk tags in agricultural areas, Curet said.

Area ranchers reported hosting 200 or more elk in their fields last winter, Commissioner Doyle Lamb said, and the commissioners share their concern that elk could transmit diseases to cattle as they mingle on winter feeding grounds.

Curet

Last winter, IDFG allocated emergency funding statewide for what was seen as an elk-hay depredation emergency, Curet told The Messenger. In the Salmon Region alone, the department spent $150,000 on eight-foot-high elk panels, gates and such for haystack yards.

Another 29 ranches in the region got elk panels in addition to those already out.

When Felton was hired as an elk hazer several years ago, it was an experimental program, but now IDFG officials want to fund one permanent hazer per region year-round. A second temporary technician was hired to help Felton last winter, Curet said.

Problem areas in the Salmon Region include Round, Pahsimeroi and East Fork valleys, plus the North Fork Salmon River, Curet said.

Fish and game commissioners have voted to increase numbers of deer and elk tags in several categories: for landowner permission hunts, controlled hunts for antlerless elk within a mile of agricultural fields and deer on private property. The department likes to try hazing first, and if that’s not enough pressure, increase tags in ag areas.

Depredation hunts are a last option. “I signed on for deer in the Challis area this morning,” Curet said. Under depredation hunts, a certain number of tags are issued, hunt area boundaries are drawn on the map and the number of tags is split between the landowner and the general public.

An extra 200-250 private-ground doe-only hunts for mule deer and white tails were issued in the Challis area and the same around Salmon, Curet said. Regionwide, an additional 50 tags per hunt area were issued for controlled hunts for antlerless elk.

It’s not easy giving everyone what they want. Some ranchers are OK with game herds on their property, while their neighbors may not be, Curet said. Some landowners feed elk and deer. The department discourages this, as baiting wildlife increases problems for neighbors, deer and elk become dependant upon supplemental feed and critter-car collisions on highways are more likely.

“They learn and they come back” if fed, said Curet.

Hawkins

The problem of elk in haystacks is growing, NRAC Chairman Jim Hawkins told The Messenger, but was made worse last winter by a heavier snow pack that drove more elk down to valley floors.

The solution is to deter elk from making it a habit to visit haystacks and cattle feeding grounds, perhaps encouraging hunters to shoot more cow elk in agricultural areas, Hawkins said. Older cow elk tend to lead herds around. “Once they taste alfalfa, it’s like meth. They keep coming back.”

On the other hand, hunters want to maximize deer and elk populations and tend to prefer shooting big bucks and bulls, Hawkins said.

In the October 26 government-to-government discussion with fish and game officials, “We all agreed it took us a while to get to this point and it will take us a while to get out,” said Hawkins. “There was always some depredation but nothing like what we have to put up with now.”

Elk were shoving beef cows and calves off their feed last winter, Hawkins said. The last thing the county needs is brucellosis and other diseases spreading from elk to cattle, he said.

Hawkins said he pointed out three big elk problem areas: Round Valley, Pahsimeroi Valley and the Big Lost River drainage above Mackay Reservoir.

The county suggested cutting the price of cow elk tags for out-of-state hunters and establishing hunting zones for either sex hunts for elk and deer, Hawkins said.

Wolves were part of the discussion. They tend to drive elk down to river bottoms and agricultural areas, Hawkins said.

Hawkins believes reducing restrictions on wolf hunts, such as allowing hunts at night when wolves are more active, might help, as would a year-round season.

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