Elk feeding frenzy forces farmer to make changes

Feed shortage | Saskatchewan farmer unable to make claim under Wildlife Damage Compensation Program

PARKSIDE, Sask. — Percy Waterhouse is fed up with elk herds eating away at his bottom line.

Hundreds of elk have been stopping daily at his farm this winter, destroying his hay bale supply and polishing off 100 acres of swathed green feed.

He said the loss has forced him to change his feeding program to make it through to spring.

Adding to his frustration are questions about the Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp. (SCIC) and how it administers the Wildlife Damage Compensation Program.

SCIC president Shawn Jaques said the wildlife program is open to all producers in the province, whether they belong to crop insurance or not.

The program is funded by the federal and provincial governments on a 60-40 sharing basis. Producers who qualify are compensated 100 percent. There are no premiums.

Jaques said the program is available for seeded commercial crops, stacked hay, market gardens, tree nurseries, sod farms, honey and leaf cutter bees and alternative feeding systems such as swath grazing.

“If we determine that there is a loss, producers will be paid 100 percent.… We don’t pay for the same loss twice,” he said.

“We expect producers to take every measure possible to prevent losses to their forage, their cattle feed.”

Waterhouse said he had expected to have enough feed at the start of winter but now won’t. He had to sell 175 calves two weeks ago, at least two months sooner than in previous years.

“Why am I forced to sell my cattle early? Why am I forced to ration my cows just so their animals (elk) can eat when you get a cold winter,” he said.

Every morning he finds rows of bales that have been torn open and several where elk have eaten the core out, leaving a wide hole. Several piles of hay lie scattered on the ground, remnants of bales that have been ripped apart and walked on. All around are the tell-tale signs of elk.

He said a herd of 100 elk typically eat one 1,500 pound bale per day and destroy another. The animals eat 20 to 30 lb. of feed each per day, which is 2 1/2 percent of their body weight. Their pawing kills alfalfa plants as the herd travels over his fields, leaving big areas of damage that will be visible come spring.

Waterhouse said he and the SCIC are monitoring damage to the hay bales and have not yet confirmed the amount of compensation.

“Typically, what we see with people that have damage to their stacked forage, those claims aren’t finalized until the wildlife has stopped coming to their yard,” said Jaques.

Waterhouse said elk numbers on his farm have been increasing, particularly over the past two winters, but wildlife has lived off his fields and crops for 15 years.

“I think the elk are spreading out. It’s getting to be a bigger area all the time,” he said.

Waterhouse’s frustration with the crop insurance program came to a head in December and January after a herd of elk ate its way through 100 acres of green feed that he had grown for swath grazing.

The SCIC had already compensated him for the field last summer because he couldn’t seed a crop in time due to wet acres. He said he did not read the small print on the contract before signing, which indicated there would be no further compensation.

Assuming he would be compensated for wildlife damage, Waterhouse then seeded the field to oats, barley and millet.

“For the wildlife damage, it’s supposed to be 100 percent (compensation) for anybody that has wildlife damage. You don’t have to be in crop insurance to get wildlife damage,” he said.

Because he accepted $5,537 through crop insurance, Waterhouse said he has been denied further compensation from the wildlife insurance program.

“They said I was double dipping. They had paid me out once and that was all they were going to pay me,” he said.

“My response is they told me it was my crop, I could do whatever I wanted with it. I went out there with good intentions for growing feed for my cows and as soon as I grew the feed they come back to me six months later and say, ‘no, it’s not mine anymore.’ They want it back to feed the elk.”

Jaques confirmed that producers who were paid under the unseeded acreage program and subsequently seed a crop are not eligible for wildlife damage.

“A producer isn’t able to get paid on the same land twice in a year.… That’s currently what the policy is,” he said.

“There’s a framework, a set of guidelines that we have to follow, and that’s right in the rules that we have with the program.”

Waterhouse, who spent $23,040 on the swath grazing crops, said he would have been better off foregoing the $5,537 that he received through the wet acres claim and submitting a claim of $23,040 through the Wildlife Damage Compensation Program.

“I would have never gone out there and invested that kind of money in fertilizer, in spray and stuff if I thought for a second that I was not going to get it (wildlife insurance),” he said.

Waterhouse said he’s not against having elk on his land, but he can’t continue paying for the privilege of feeding the animals and fixing broken fence lines.

“I enjoy seeing wildlife just as much as anybody but I can’t sit here and feed 200 extra animals on my farm. It’s not economically feasible. Can’t do it.”

Jaques said the SCIC has also performed a larger role in wildlife damage prevention since 2010.

“We provide funding for intercept feeding,” he said.

“In those rare cases when producers have a lot of wildlife in an area, we’ll provide funding to erect a fence to protect those stack yards.”

Waterhouse said a meeting has been scheduled in Parkside March 6 between producers, the SCIC, the provincial environment ministry and Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management.

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