Elk damage crops

Elk damaging crops is a growing problem in much of Idaho. The state legislature is considering enlarging the fund used to compensate farmers for crops that are damaged by wildlife.

February’s heavy snows are impacting Idaho’s program that compensates farmers for crop losses caused by elk and other wildlife.

“We are definitely seeing an uptick in issues the last couple of weeks,” said Sal Palazzolo, private lands program coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Around Arco, Idaho Falls and Rexburg in eastern Idaho, “we are hearing from farmers that more and more elk are getting into haystacks and stored, tarped hay.”

IDFG’s big-game depredation program, which would expand the types of damage its compensation account covers if a bill in the Idaho Legislature passes, can face pressure from sources ranging from heavy snows to planting trends.

“This current year we have seen some specialty crops that were impacted, and they certainly are more valuable than your normal commodities,” Palazzolo said, referring to the fiscal year that started July 1.

Increased corn production, driven in part by the needs of Idaho dairy and cattle production, impacts the depredation program, he said. From 2017 to last year, Idaho corn production for silage was unchanged while corn production for grain increased by 23 percent, USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service reported.

Corn, which offers easy access to food, water and security cover, “is basically perfect habitat for elk,” Palazzolo said. “Once you get elk into a pivot of corn, they can be hard to get out.”

Idaho recently has seen a couple of larger-than-usual depredation claims related to corn, which “is pretty expensive, because elk can cause a lot of damage pretty quickly.”

Some crops are being grown where they haven’t been historically, or in higher volumes, he said. Animals are learning about these opportunities, “and we are even starting to see animals eating potatoes, just a learned behavior.”

Palazzolo said deer and elk populations are bigger in some places now, thanks in part to relatively mild recent winters.

The annual budget for Idaho depredation prevention is about $500,000. A separate annual budget to pay compensation claims is about $750,000.

The compensation budget includes about $500,000 from a hunting license fee the Legislature approved two years ago; more than $200,000 from part of the sale of elk, deer and pronghorn antelope hunting tags; and interest. The account can build if it is not exhausted by claims each year.

The compensation account would also cover damage to irrigation gear and seedbed ground if House Bill 80 passes. The Idaho Grain Producers Association testified in favor of it. Damage claims could increase by an estimated $150,000 per year, the bill’s fiscal note says.

“What had previously been thought was that we will put $750,000 into that account, and historically we didn’t get that amount of claims,” Palazzolo said. “With these expensive claims coming in, that account may not build over time.”

IDFG expects claims, which in late February totaled about $443,000 plus $114,000 in continuing-use agreements, to be well above last year’s roughly $700,000 by the time the fiscal year ends, he said.

In a CUA, which often lasts three years, the department pays for big-game animals’ continued use of rangeland or forage.

“We are waiting on (claims for) a couple of specialty crops,” Palazzolo said. “The ones we are waiting on are going to be some of the bigger ones — primarily corn, potatoes and more unusual specialty quinoa and specialty grains.”

IDFG pays half up front and half at the end of the fiscal year; if there is not sufficient money available, the department can prorate compensation.

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