Farmers in the Takhini River Valley have had it with the wild elk that cause damage to fencing, their crop fields and bother their livestock.
The Yukon Agricultural Association hosted a media tour of four farms last Friday to hear what the farmers had to say about the problem.
They were unanimous in their call for the government to step up and do something.
The farmers believe the government should allow open elk hunting throughout the Takhini Valley, even in what’s called the core zone where elk are protected.
The animals would eventually become skittish, and would move further and further away from populated areas – and farms.
The first of the elk were transplanted from Alberta to the Yukon beginning in 1989.
It was estimated a couple of years ago that the population of the Takhini herd was in the neighbourhood of 230 animals.
Retired farmer Mike Blumenschein led the tour to his former farm off the Takhini River Road that he sold in 2016 to Loralee and Kevin Johnstone.
The tour included stops at three other farms through the valley. Along for the tour were NDP Leader Kate White, deputy minister John Bailey of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, and deputy minister Manon Moreau of Environment Yukon.
Loralee Johnstone said she knows of a farmer who had a couple of elk in their yard. Now they’re in the freezer – and the elk don’t stop by anymore.
Johnstone said every year they get a permit to chase and harass the elk, but they come back.
“They just get to the point where they don’t care,” she said. “The only thing we are trying to do is stop the elk from conflict.”
Blumenschein said the First Nations want them gone out of the valley, as does the Alsek Renewable Resource Council.
Not only are the elk causing significant damage when they hop fences to steal feed or mingle with livestock.
They also do substantial damage to crops, he said.
Blumenschein said he knows another farmer who has spent more on repairing fencing than he has in his life savings.
Johnstone said they lost 35 per cent of their total crop yield because of elk damage to their fields last year.
“I am not looking forward to seeing how it will affect us this year,” she said.
Blumenschein said opening up an elk hunt to all hunters – including farmers – would be an effective deterrent.
You don’t have to shoot the whole herd, he said. Once the elk catch on to the additional hunting pressure, they’ll move on, and the problem will be reduced, he suggested.
Another farmer he knows lost 20 per cent of his crops, and after installing game fencing, he still has to redo his fields. The whole affair probably cost him $250,000, including lost crops, Blumenschein said.
Johnstone said they board high-end horses that to be relocated to another boarding facility out of fear the elk could cause injuries to the horses.
The farmers are unanimous in their message. They’re tired of losing money because of elk damage, they’re tired of fixing fences, they’re tired of losing crops and they’re tired of the damage to their fields.
The elk start showing up in the fall and can stay around all winter.
It’s generally accepted the animals paw through the snow to the ground to dig up roots. The foraging kills the patch of grass and creates bare spots which will start to grow weeds when the growing season returns.
Dev Hurlburt of the Horse Haven ranch off the Alaska Highway recalled how he had installed eight-foot game fencing, under the supervision of the government.
A group of some 75 elk walked right through it this past winter, and kept coming back until conflict hunters shot a number of the elk.
Yvette Choma and her husband, Hank Sippel, of the 37 Mile Ranch, know all too well the elk struggle.
Sippel said every day for two months over the winter, he had to mend fencing damaged by the elk to keep his horses in. It wasn’t much fun in -30 C temperatures, he said.
The corral for their miniature horses is surround by sturdy fencing made of 2 x 6 lumber.
Sippel said when the elk want to get in, they’ll jump in and can take out a section of the 2 x 6 fencing without a problem.
Elsewhere, there’s mended barbed wire fence everywhere, and tufts of elk hair can still be seen on the fencing.
“They just run through the fence,” said Sipple. “It’s really disheartening.”
Choma recalled how 10 or 15 elk got into the horse corral and devoured an 800-pound bail of hay in just eight hours.
Under current policy, Takhini Valley farmers can call on conflict hunters to come out and hunt problem elk, though it’s a process. A list of conflict hunters, who are regular licensed hunters, is maintained by Environment Yukon.
But the elk aren’t always there when the hunters arrive, or the elk switch to night-time raids.
There are the short daylight hours in the winter. There’s also the general concern about having strangers hunting within a kilometre of the home.
There is compensation available for fence damage and crop loss but there is general agreement it doesn’t cover anywhere near the amount of financial loss farmers suffer.
There were suggestions that perhaps the government should put up seven-foot game fencing around affected farms. The government should maintain ownership of the fencing and pay contractors or the farmers to maintain it, it was suggested.
The elk, after all, were transplanted here by the government. They are the government’s responsibility, it was generally agreed.
“I think if you are going to do a project, you have to be responsible for them,” said Sippel.
“When it is a transplanted species, that is another story,” added Choma.
Blumenschein said it’s been estimated it would cost the government $6 million to install game fencing on the 23 farms affected by the elk.
Another $3 million for fencing the farms not currently affected would be required, as once the elk get locked out of the farms they bother, they’ll look elsewhere, he said.
Blumenschein said another $3 million would be required to repair the field damage.
The government decided last year to conduct a two-year herd reduction, with a goal of removing 40 per cent or 85 elk from the
Elk harvest numbers on record from last year show a total mortality of 47 elk inside the Takhini Valley.
Of the total, four were shot inside the valley by licensed hunters with permit hunt authorizations
There were a couple of road kills. The vast majority, 30, were shot by conflict hunters.
The herd reduction proposal is now in its second year.
But Blumenschein pointed out killing the 85 elk would not reduce the herd by 40 per cent because it doesn’t take into account the number of calves born every year.
Having an open season in the Takhini Valley would be the most effective way of facing the elk issue, he believes.
As one farmer put it, it’s like the hunt for the transplanted bison.
When the bison hunt opened up in the late 1990s, hunters on snow machines could approach the bison without driving them off.
The animals didn’t have the fear of the unknown; they didn’t know the sound of approaching snow machines was the sound of danger.
It doesn’t work that way anymore, as the bison have wised up and they know the sound of approaching snowmachines means trouble.
It would be the same effect on elk if there was a hunting season, the farmer believes.
But the acting director of fish and wildlife for Environment Yukon pointed out the bison hunt occurs in the wilderness, not in close proximity to populated areas.
Karen Clyde said the focus right now is on the two-year plan to reduce the herd through the conflict hunts. Once it’s done, they’ll assess its impact, she said.
“It is complicated because we are working around people’s houses,” she said.