Northern producers struggle with elk problems

Feed losses costly | There are also reports of elk killing horses and ruining bales in farmers’ yards.

SPIRIT RIVER, Alta. — Tony and Pat Evans say herds of rampaging elk have left them with no options but to sell their horses.

The couple from northwestern Alberta say they have fought off elk that eat their hay, smash their fences and kill their animals for more than 12 years.

“We’re going to have to get out of the business,” said Pat.

Elk come out of the bush in herds of 200 to 400 animals and move into the Evans’ fields during winter. They push aside horses to get at the hay.

The Evans said they can no longer afford to buy hay for elk as well as for their band of 77 horses.

“As soon as you put the feed out, they come out of the bush,” Pat said, sitting at the kitchen table on her farm tucked along a forested area.

The couple sold a quarter section of land last year to pay bills, which included buying 200 hay bales. This year, they are selling their grazing lease to help pay bills because horse prices are down.

While the elk are a source of frustration, Tony said the Alberta government’s failure to control the elk, is equally frustrating.

In addition to snatching up food left for the horses, last year elk also killed three horses. Five years ago, the Evans had another horse killed by elk.

Tony said Alberta Fish and Wildlife officials don’t seem to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation.

“The province needs to pay for the damage (elk) are doing,” said Pat, who added she thinks government officials are tired of hearing their concerns.

“They think we’re bitchy, old people.”

Elaine Garrow, a councillor with the Municipal District of Spirit River, estimated that 12,000 elk roam the area from Wanham to Spirit River and south.

“It’s a massive problem,” said Garrow, who was chased into her barn by five elk.

Garrow stacks bales in her yard to keep an eye on the hay. She tries chasing the elk away with her truck, dogs and rubber bullets when the elk come into the yard.

Sandy Reber said her husband, Gerald, hooked up noisemakers and strobe lights every night last winter to discourage elk from entering their farmyard.

“It worked, but it’s a lot of work,” said Reber.

She said elk will come into their yard and eat out of the bale feeders.

“They would chase away the cows and the baby calves,” said Reber, who estimated that 100 elk live near their farm.

Garrow said elk have become a huge concern for the MD of Spirit River, which has taken its concerns to the Fish and Wildlife department but so far have seen little results.

“They don’t feel it is a grave enough issue,” said Garrow. “Nobody cares.”

Kelly Hudson, the municipal district’s chief administrative officer, said elk are usually a problem in late winter when feed becomes scarce, but last year they were a problem all winter because of early snow in October.

“Because of the scarce food, they got bolder and less afraid. They were fighting off animals for feed in farmyards,” said Hudson.

It was not uncommon for elk to break into granaries and for herds of 400 animals to climb over hay bales, she added.

“Four hundred animals can make a major impact on bale yards.”

AFSC, which is responsible for disaster assistance in Alberta, says officials made 357 big game inspections last year and the first three months of this year. Farmers also made 136 stacked hay claims.

Neil Campbell of Woking said it’s not uncommon to see 200 to 300 elk in his fields, which makes it impossible to bale graze or swath graze cattle.

“They would clean you out of house and home,” said Campbell, who spent Boxing Day fixing fence when a herd of elk pushed 50 of his bulls through a fence.

Campbell said the government isn’t acknowledging the seriousness of the problem and believes opening the hunting season to cows and general tags is the only way to help control the elk population.

He said the government does pay for hay for intercept feeding areas and wire for hay fences, but it is only a small step to finding a solution.

Sustainable resource development minister Diana McQueen said in a letter to Evans that the government is working to help find solutions to the conflicts, including extending the hunting season.

“These hunting opportunities will help manage the elk population,” she wrote.

“The government also works co-operatively with landowners to provide information and tools to help address impacts from human-wildlife conflicts.”

Alberta Fish and Wildlife officials at the department’s Spirit River and Grande Prairie offices were not available for comment.

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