LADYSMITH – Elk continue to damage farm infrastructure and government compensation is not enough, producers say. They want long-term solutions that balance land and species protection.
“The grass that should be starting to grow, getting ready for crops come June, is chewed right down to half an inch on the ground. So, they’ve devoured all that,” says Misty Valley Farm owner Howie Davis of Ladysmith.
Davis runs 150 cattle on 180 acres and four years ago had about a dozen elk on his land. Last month, he counted 42 animals that have remained on his property since December. The herd have put holes in his pastureland and run through sections of fencing.
When he calls the province to report the damage to his property, staff offer compensation through the Agriculture Wildlife Program.
“I’d like to see people that are responsible for them to keep their elk off my property the same as I have to keep my cattle off other people’s property. But they don’t do anything,” Davis says. “They’ll throw more money at it but that isn’t what solves it. It’s terrible. They just don’t seem to care at all.”
While the compensation is a start, he says the amount is not enough to cover all the losses caused by the elk.
“It’s not nearly what it costs for me to go ahead and repair my fences and try to do something with my ground after they’ve chewed it all up,” Davis says. “[Annual repairs] are not what I want to do with my land. I want to grow hay and feed my cattle.”
In 1998, the Roosevelt elk was added to the list of species of special concern in BC. But since then, the elk population has nearly doubled, rising from 3,800 in 2001 to an estimated 7,000 last year. Of these, the BC Wildlife Federation estimates about 4,500 live on Vancouver Island. The remainder are concentrated in the mainland’s southwest.
The elk’s protected status means farmers cannot legally take matters into their own hands.
“The Wildlife Act doesn’t authorize the owner of agricultural property to destroy wildlife that is damaging or eating crops,” online guidance from the province states. “If there is a lawful hunting season open at the time and in the location that the crop damage is taking place, there is the option of contacting the local rod and gun club to arrange for hunters to come and harvest the conflict animals.”
While there is not an open season for elk during the year, outfitters can obtain permits to shoot bulls, Davis says. Each year, resident hunters submit over 15,000 applications for approximately 300 permits in a lottery system.
“If you shoot a bull you got rid of one elk, but the cows are the ones that are producing. The herd that’s out here, there are five bulls, so you can figure that out,” he says.
Davis would like to see a designated hunting season to thin the herds.
Misty Valley Farm sits about as far north as the elk will go on Vancouver Island, Davis says, but the problem persists in the Duncan and Mill Bay areas, too. Davis fears the herd will continue to grow, expanding its range and the number of affected farms.
The Vancouver Island Cattlemen’s Association hosted the BC Forage Council on March 9 for an advanced grazing workshop, where the issue arose in discussion. Producers noted that they cannot use rotational grazing and best management practices or enroll in provincial grazing programs if they have lost all their grass to elk. It was apparent to Davis and Dellison Farm owner and VICA vice-president Ken Ellison of Duncan that producers are at a loss for viable long-term solutions.
“I talked to a couple of different people just today. They’ve put up fencing and different fence types,” Davis says. “There’s just nothing they’ve been able to do to keep them out permanently. A couple of them have just thrown up their hands. They don’t know what to do.”
Ellison has dealt with a herd of about 90 resident elk on his property that have damaged fences and property.
He manages about 240 acres of owned and leased land for his 150 head of cattle. Last year, the elk caused enough damage to his pastures that Ellison had to buy 400 round bales and 80 large squares to feed his cattle.
“I’ve never had to buy feed before. … And then the government says, ‘Well, we’re giving you compensation for it.’ But it doesn’t come close to what we’re losing. Not close,” Ellison says.
BC Cattlemen’s Association general manager Kevin Boon acknowledges that elk are “a huge issue for our ranchers and farmers throughout the province that we have been dealing with for decades. It comes to management of numbers of elk out there and then how to compensate for it.”
While the issue is perennial, Ellison has never seen the situation so dire. Thirty years ago, he had one bull and two cows on his property. Now, two herds have come together and live in the area year-round.
“I’ve never seen what we’re dealing with right now, ever. This time of year, even in February, we used to have six or eight inches of new green growth in our fields. We have lawns right now,” Ellison says. “Forget about what’s going to grow in our peak April and May growing season. With the damage that these animals are doing to the roots of our grass because they’re chewing it down, … that grass is never going to recover.”
Ranchers have raised this issue with the province, including BC Ministry of Forests wildlife biologist William Wilton, who leads development and implementation of the Roosevelt elk management plan.
Wilton says the ministry is doing everything it can to increase herd numbers.
As the herd grows, human-wildlife conflicts are expanding beyond local farms. Since December, four elk have been hit by vehicles while crossing over Highway 1 to Davis’s property, all of which had to be euthanized due to injuries.
“I believe what they’re waiting for is someone to get killed so that they can do something more about it. The one police I talked to; those were the words that she said,” Davis says.
In addition to elk on the road, Ellison worries about cattle getting out and causing accidents.
“It’s difficult to find an insurance company that will actually sell us insurance. What happens when the insurance companies have to start paying out [for] cattle being out on the roads and getting hit by cars because elk have broken down fences, and that’s starting to happen right now,” Ellison says. “That’s something that nobody’s even thought about, like the lovely biologists at the Ministry of Environment who caused this problem.”
The BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, which oversees the Conservation Officer Service, declined to comment. The Ministry of Forests did not respond before deadline.