Yukon farmers in the Takhini Valley say the elk population is still causing strife, despite plans to cull the herd and compensation programs for fencing and crop damage.
“We put our heart and soul into it and my worry is that we can’t sustain this over and over,” said Loralee Johnstone, who bought Echo Mountain Ranch in 2016. “We’ll have to decide between fencing and equipment.”
On May 28 the Yukon Agricultural Association organized a tour of four farms, attended by NDP leader Kate White and Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers .
Deputy ministers from the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources and the Department of Environment also attended to see first-hand the damage the animals are causing.
At each of the farms, evidence of elk was present: damaged fencing, feces and swaths of dead field caused by the animals digging up and eating roots in fields. Farmers also said the herds had been breaking into barns and storage sheds, feeding on hay for livestock and frightening horses.
The government introduced the elk to the region between 1951 and 1994 for increased hunting opportunities. The herd was originally around 60 animals but a recent survey counted 230 elk. The elk are currently subject of an ongoing lawsuit between a different Yukon farm and the government.
Johnstone said on their ranch they had done everything they could to dissuade elk — they got a big dog, received permits to constantly harass the elk, and have called in conflict hunters via the Department of Environment.
Nothing acted as a permanent deterrent, and Johnstone said they have had concerns about boarding horses due to property damage and the chance of elk harassing the animals.
Fences were a last resort, due to the impact on the property and the expense of both installation and upkeep.
“We couldn’t imagine living in a place with all these big fences and how aesthetically unpleasant that would be. We thought it would devalue our property to be honest,” she said.
The Yukon government has made funding available to help cover the cost of game fences. Johnstone said that subsidy covers between one-quarter and one-third of the total cost for fencing all the hay crop on the property.
Johnstone’s concerns were echoed by farmers Dev Hulburt, who owns Horse Haven and Hank Sippel and Yvette Choma, who own 37 Mile Ranch.
“When you love what you do so much, when you love being on the land, then you watch your profits literally being eaten [by the elk], it’s hard,” said Choma, who said the elk are hungry over the winter and steal hay intended for horses.
“If I was someone who brought in an animal, and didn’t take care of it, the SPCA would come in and take my animals and I would be fined. Where’s the accountability?” she said.
The elk situation is managed by both the Department of Environment, which is in charge of herd management policy, and the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, which manages agriculture programs.
Representatives from both departments said the government is currently in a two-year plan to manage the conflict, including a planned reduction of the herd by 85 to 90 animals and more funds spent on preventative fencing.
Through the Agriculture Department, farmers are eligible for funding in both prevention and compensation streams. Prevention funds can be used toward things like fencing, while compensation provides a limited payout for damaged fields or vandalized property.
“We do have an officer that would go through that, look at the damage, look at our program and just see what can be done. I would say we are there to support farmers. We do recognize that there is an issue here. So that’s the whole reason for these programs,” said Director of Agriculture Bobbie Milnes.
Milnes said the department can’t completely fund the cost of fences or repeated damage to fields when preventative measures aren’t taken.
He said decisions are made on a “case by case” basis in those situations.
“One of the challenges we have is how do we make sure that the funds that we do have are available to as many farmers as need them? In order to do that we do have to cap it at a certain amount,” he said.
He said game fencing has proven effective at deterring the elk.
Karen Clyde, Acting Director of Fish and Wildlife who has spent considerable time on the elk file, said the herd are an important part of the landscape and appeal to tourists and locals as well as hunters.
She said the department has worked over the years to identify effective fencing and plans to reduce the herd by around 40 per cent through a “conflict hunters” program to harvest the animals.
“What we’re trying to do is to try to manage the conflict rather than get rid of them entirely. It’s not a simple solution,” she said.
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