By JOHN O'CONNELL
BOISE -- Each winter, Richard Larsen uses straw bales he could otherwise sell as dairy feed to build 8-foot protective barriers around his haystacks.
Elk, deer and antelope turn up their noses at straw, but the bales keep them from feeding on his hay. However, labor costs and foregone sales revenue make it an expensive remedy.
Larsen agrees with the intent of a bill that's been stalled in the Idaho Legislature, which would allow for an emergency declaration when more than 10 elk or 20 deer or antelope feed on private property and cause damages in excess of $500.
Upon verification of an emergency by a county extension agent or sheriff, the bill would give the Idaho Department of Fish and Game 48 hours to remove game animals and set up a feeding area to keep them away.
The Idaho Cattle Association acknowledges the problem but opposes the bill, citing concerns that feeding stations would spread brucellosis in eastern Idaho. The Fish and Game Commission has also come out against the legislation, H.B. 146. Introduced by Rep. Judy Boyle, a Republican rancher from Midvale, the bill has been stalled in the House Resources and Conservation Committee since Feb. 13.
Sharon Kiefer, IDFG deputy director, said the bill awards no extra funding for feeding and would sap other programs of revenue. It also doesn't specify feeding emergencies should take place during winter and could cover depredations not caused by elk, deer or antelope. IDFG doubts county sheriffs would be properly trained to assess forage losses and questions the logistics of setting up feeding stations so quickly.
IDFG now charges $1.50 per elk, deer and antelope hunting tag to address animal depredation. The fee is divided evenly between a winter feeding account and efforts to haze, remove or control troublesome wildlife through depredation hunts. IDFG responds to about 1,500 depredation cases annually. Last year, IDFG compensated landowners $108,000 for big game depredation.
"I think perhaps we might see another bill, but I suspect the next one will be written more specifically," Kiefer said.
Richard Savage, a past ICA president from Hamer, Idaho, lives near Idaho's designated surveillance area for brucellosis, located near Yellowstone National Park.
"The very last thing we want is a congregation of elk on feed ground because it will spread that disease like wildfire," Savage said. "Right now we still have an open trading status with most of the states. Our fear is we'd lose that if we were to start feeding game like that."
But Savage also knows of producers in the Lemhi region who can have up to 500 elk feeding on their fields.
"We have producers in places that need help terribly bad," Savage said.
If the issue remains tabled for the remainder of this session, Savage suggests further studying it in an ICA task force assigned to analyze Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service recommendations about the brucellosis DSA program.
Boyle could not be reached for comment.