Deer leaping gracefully over a fence, or elk silhouetted against a setting sun, or geese describing a V against a cerulean prairie sky — all those sights bring pleasure and a sense of peace to those with the good fortune to see them.
Such bucolic encounters with wildlife are a fringe benefit of rural life and a less frequent but no less enjoyable event for town or city dwellers.
Rare is the farmer or rancher who doesn’t enjoy seeing nature’s beasts in their natural habitat; a habitat often provided and protected by landowners themselves.
But deer, elk and geese also eat feed in stacks, swaths and grain piles that were destined for livestock. Ungulates can damage fences and compete for pasture. Carnivores such as coyotes, wolves, cougars and bears prey on calves, lambs and other stock, and can damage granaries, silage bags and bee yards.
There is a price paid by those who host wildlife on their agricultural property, yet relatively little compensation is available.
Some would argue that a certain amount of wildlife damage is just a cost of doing business for farmers and ranchers. It’s part of owning and managing property.
Farmers and ranchers are likely to reject that argument. They may point out the value of the habitat, water sources and environmental diversity that they maintain, all of which make wildlife habitation possible.
And they might legitimately ask what that service and supply are worth to the public.
That very juxtaposition is what will make the outcome of an Alberta survey, now underway, so interesting.
Jointly developed by Alberta Beef Producers and the Miistakis Institute, the survey on the economic impact of wildlife on beef producers includes this key question: “As part of doing business, I am willing to accept a loss each year due to wildlife of (fill in the blank) percentage of the total income earned from my beef operation.”
Some will say zero. Some won’t. The survey is anonymous, which is expected to encourage candour.
The answer, coupled with the actual costs that producers assess in connection to wildlife damage, will bring hard numbers to the table. It will show producers’ degree of willingness to cope with wildlife in their operations.
Hopefully, it will also indicate the true expense borne by those surveyed, given that wildlife damage is thought to be under-reported.
After all, who wants to bother itemizing every broken fence or damaged grain bag that allows feed to moulder?
Statistically sound data could lead the way to improved compensation plans. It could open the door to more meaningful discussions on how many deer or elk or bears or wild widgets are sustainable on the modern landscape.
Further, it might allow various groups to begin work on a plan to recognize the ecological goods and services provided by farmers and ranchers.
Such a plan has been discussed at many levels but few have been able to envision how it could work and what level of benefit it would have to producers, wildlife and the public.
However, the difficulty shouldn’t discourage the effort. A workable plan could have application across the Prairies.
All those possibilities are admittedly too much for one survey to shoulder. The point is that a compilation of actual costs, and data on producers’ willingness to bear them, are vital to future policies regarding wildlife and how it interacts with agriculture.
Demands on the landscape are heavy. With more data, planning and foresight, deer can continue to gracefully leap through the landscape and grizzly bears can continue to do what they do in the woods.
Producers and the public will be the richer for it.