Elk give sleep deprived farmer a break

Bill Travis slept soundly this past winter. The rest came as a welcome surprise to the Lake Laberge farmer, who, a year earlier, was up most nights chasing a herd of elk away from his oat crops.

Bill Travis slept soundly this past winter.

The rest came as a welcome surprise to the Lake Laberge farmer, who, a year earlier, was up most nights chasing a herd of elk away from his oat crops.

As the winter wore on, the elk grew bolder. Shouting, bear-bangers and even flares failed to scare the beasts away.

“They’d run 50 feet, stop, look at you, stamp and make funny, squeally sounds,” Travis recalls.

“You come back home, you have a cup of tea, and 20 minutes later they’re back out there.”

At one point the government hired a helicopter to hover over the herd. But they always returned.

Yet this year things are different. The elk stay on the far side of the Takhini River, allowing Travis to catch up on his rest. There are two likely explanations for the change.

The first is that the Yukon government began issuing permits for hunters to shoot the herd, with a focus on animals found near farmers’ fields. The second is that Travis and his neighbours have stopped growing oats.

But Brad Cathers, the Independent MLA for Lake Laberge, is calling on the Yukon Party government to take one step further to ensure the elk stop hassling his constituents.

He wants the territory’s wildlife regulations changed to allow residents to shoot elk without a permit if the animals have destroyed property or pose a physical threat.

The latter concern may sound silly, but Travis once found himself accosted by a young elk, the size of a goat, that wouldn’t move off his property. The animal charged, gave Travis a few choice kicks and left the farmer with a torn coat and bruised and bloodied knees.

Yet even Travis feels torn about the proposal.

“I’ve got mixed emotions about that,” he said. “I’ve never blamed the elk. They’re just making a living, and they’re all pregnant females, and they seek quality food.”

Farmers rarely deal with a single elk, he noted. “When they’re on my property, it’s not one elk, it’s 50. So I can’t shoot them all.”

In any case, Environment Minister John Edzerza says Cathers’ request won’t happen. “The simple answer to that question is no,” he said in the legislature April 21.

Elk are not native to the Yukon. The animals were introduced from Alberta, at the behest of the territory’s hunters, in the 1950s. The populations of the Takhini and Braeburn herds remained small, at a total of about 100 animals, until the 1990s, when an additional 100 animals were introduced.

Warm winters, the protection of young offered by tick pens, and perhaps the plentiful food offered by nearby farms all appear to have contributed to the herds’ thriving.

Last autumn, the Takhini herd had an estimated population of 250, while the Braeburn herd was believed to number around 85.

In September, the Environment Department issued a total of 50 permits for both herds. By the end of the hunting season, March 31, only 26 elk had been taken.

That means the Takhini herd that pestered Travis remains far larger than Environment’s target population of 175.

Still, Travis only caught sight of the animals near his property several times in the autumn.

“I have a list of people with tags. I called one neighbour, he shot one. I called another neighbour, he shot one. They turned around, ran across the river, and I haven’t seen them since.”

But he expects the elks’ disappearance has just as much to do with the lack of oats to gobble.

“There wasn’t much incentive,” said Travis. “What you can find in our fields here you can find in a ditch. Basically, it’s the same thing.”

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.