An Idaho Department of Fish and Game study aims to find better ways to stop elk from damaging crops.
“It seems like from the 1980s on many state agencies have struggled in identifying ways to keep elk out of crops,” said John Guthrie, the Twin Falls-based IDFG biologist and University of Idaho graduate student leading the study, which is now in its second year.
Hazing, propane cannons and even hunts haven’t provided sufficient relief, at least in the long term, he said.
Elk “are extremely resilient animals, and they are very adaptive,” he said. “They can thrive in many different types of habitats and situations. They also can become habituated very quickly.”
Crop losses from elk are increasing, said Guthrie, who has years of experience as IDFG regional landowner-sportsman coordinator.
“Over the last five years or so in much of southern Idaho, we have elk populations expanding in their range as the human footprint continues to expand into that agriculture-wildland interface,” he said. “Right, wrong or indifferent, elk are finding themselves in close proximity to agriculture.”
Elk populations also increased, helped by the food and cover they find in crop fields.
“A few years ago we were rapidly approaching kind of a tipping point where landowners were really getting some significant impacts from elk damaging their crops,” Guthrie said. “As we approached that tipping point, it was made very clear to Idaho Fish and Game by a number of user groups: the department really needed to figure out some new and effective ways for keeping elk from causing these damages.”
He and four colleagues are working at 17 sites in the state’s southern region, from Weiser in the west to Montpelier in the east. About 30 landowners are involved, and “we have just gotten huge support from them,” he said.
IDFG kill permits allow landowners to harvest animals. The department is “trying to find the most effective method and frequency at which to implement these kill permits so they can be more effective at reducing damage by elk,” Guthrie said.
“One of the biggest problems is that often when elk are damaging fields, they are doing it at night,” he said.
Researchers plan to have GPS tracking collars on about 45 elk by mid-July. They hope that by tracking a lead elk moving near or into a farm field, they can remove one or two — and deter others from staying or returning.
Guthrie said the collars, in addition to helping with targeted lethal removal, are expected to provide valuable information, as they track an elk’s position several times an hour. “The state can use collar information to better inform managers on patterns and resource use of elk that are damaging fields.”
Elk-collaring traditionally focused on understanding natural habitat in more detail.
“There is somewhat of a knowledge gap in how these elk that cause damage navigate the landscape, their timing of use, et cetera,” Guthrie said. “Earlier, they were looking at elk that spend their lives on the mountain, in places where they were not getting in trouble.”
Researchers last summer found elk damage could be reduced by approximately 50% when they put up special temporary electric fencing as a deterrent. The fences are 7 feet tall.
Guthrie said elk have caused significant damage to corn in the Weiser area and in south-central Idaho. Researchers plan to use trained Running Walker Foxhounds to find elk and chase them out of corn that is too tall and dense for other methods. The hounds will replace Border Collies, which last year proved ineffective because they depend on visual and auditory commands.
Study funding is from IDFG, with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation covering half the cost of the GPS collars. The total cost is yet to be determined.