Wildlife and agriculture can live in harmony — to a point

Many articles have been written about the escalating conflict between wildlife and agriculture in certain parts of Canada. 


Governments struggle over what to do. The most recent survey on wildlife damage by Alberta Beef Producers and the Miistakis Institute should provide meaningful information.


The survey was comprehensive and covered predators such as coyotes and cougars and damage to grain, primarily from waterfowl and ungulates such as elk and deer.


I hope it provides direction to authorities as to where and when to implement programs because they are badly needed in some areas. 


Most farmers like wildlife and enjoy seeing the odd moose, elk or bear — although maybe not a grizzly — on their farms. 


Many of my beef clients were serious hunters, but with that came a respect for wildlife. They accepted a minor amount of damage because their farms were located in wildlife habitat.


Any of these interactions are good as long as they are in moderation, and I stress moderation. 


Wildlife damage affects a producer’s livelihood when we start talking about large herds of elk eating and destroying tonnes of grass or bales and wolves and cougars picking off healthy calves.


At that point, we need solutions. 


Wildlife, especially ungulates, are flourishing because of the amount of land that has been cleared to grow forages. Environmentally conscious producers tend to look after riparian areas, which attract more wildlife. Deer and elk thrive, and their predators follow close behind. 


Feed supplies have increased because of good agricultural production, especially forages. 


Fencing feed yards and scaring off wildlife can help, but many of these solutions are temporary. 


Reproductive rates go up when wildlife are healthy, and the issue comes down to population control, whether it is too many elk coming out of the Canadian Armed Forces’ Suffield training range in Alberta or overgrazing in national parks.


Harvesting is the answer to many of the problems, whether that means extra hunting and compensating producers for use of their land or conducting mass roundups.


In some areas, populations should be managed by trained biologists who have the power to make the right call. In the interim, compensation losses for lost standing forage hay or grain will help, but the losses will continue year after year if populations are high. 


As well, moving a herd of elk or deer from one area just drives them onto neighbouring land. Predators often follow large ungulate herds, compounding the problem.


Feed loss, fence damage and predation are some of the many losses that producers experience. 


One article I read taught me that there can be ‘’good” and “bad” coyotes. Some coyotes stick to small animals such as gophers and mice and don’t bother cattle. Coyotes are territorial, which means producers want to keep a family of good coyotes on their farms.


Some provinces compensate for coyote losses, but others don’t, such as Alberta and Saskatchewan. 


Agriculture loss from wildlife varies. For example, the discussion in Ontario is more about raccoons and rats. As a result, each province should develop individual compensation programs.


The wildlife interactions I frequently hear about are attacks on cattle. In these cases, we need to verify the cause of death. 


In the past, compensation was available for deaths but not for treatment of injured livestock. 


Specific things need to be looked at when developing future compensation packages. It serves no one if vigilante warfare takes place because producers are frustrated and feel they have nowhere to turn. 


Many urban residents say they want all wildlife preserved, but the analogy of a pet dog or cat being killed by a cougar or a garden destroyed by deer aptly describes how farmers sometimes feel. 


Urban residents must also remember that this is farmers’ livelihoods, which can be severely diminished in some cases.


Compensation programs must be easy to administer and payment needs to be timely. 


Governments need to develop sustainable programs that provide adequate compensation and population reduction when warranted but still allow people to see wildlife in their natural habitat.


Catching or relocating a problem bear is much different than catching and relocating a large herd of elk. Relocating large groups may just move the problem somewhere else and throw yet another ecosystem off balance. Perhaps harvesting for the food bank should be considered.


I would think insurance companies would welcome a reduction in deer numbers in populated areas, considering the injuries and vehicle damage that can occur. 


I haven’t even talked about migratory birds. Compensation is usually provided, although not if a winter swath grazing crop is destroyed.


Rules for all wildlife programs need to be fine-tuned and compensation provided where warranted. This will keep agriculture in harmony with wildlife and protect wildlife for future generations to experience.


Roy Lewis works as a technical services veterinarian part time with Merck Animal Health in Alberta.