Yukon’s big, hairy, oat gobbling locusts

Of all the wild things that live in the Takhini Valley, Bill Travis never reckoned the one to attack him would be a baby elk. Yet there he stood, horsewhip in hand, with a calf no bigger than a goat charging at him.

Of all the wild things that live in the Takhini Valley, Bill Travis never reckoned the one to attack him would be a baby elk.

Yet there he stood, horsewhip in hand, with a calf no bigger than a goat charging at him.

The animal cleared the five feet between them in a flash, reared up on its hind feet and gave him a few choice kicks, leaving Travis with a torn coat and bruised and bloodied knee.

It was just one of many indignations Travis suffered last year during a battle between himself and an elk herd determined to eat the oats and hay on his 16-hectare farm in the Takhini Valley.

It was hardly a fair fight from where Travis stood. He didn’t want to shoot the animal, but he was running out of options after a week of trying to deter the animal from loitering near his hay pile.

He tried shouting. He tried blowing a police whistle. He tried setting off a bear-banger.

Nothing worked.

He called a conservation officer, who charged at the animal on a snowmobile. It didn’t budge.

The officer shot the animal with a rubber bullet. It still didn’t go.

Clearly, something was wrong. The animal was sick.

But, at the time, no one was allowed to shoot elk, even if an animal posed a threat to his property or his own safety.

“There’s nothing we can really do,” conservation officers told him, he said.

The trouble with the calf soon solved itself. The animal died the night after it charged Travis.

But the bigger problem remained. Each night, the horses in his field would spook. Horses don’t like the smell of elk.

So each night, for two and a half months, Travis and his wife would sleep in shifts. One of them needed to be awake to chase elk.

He would head to bed around 8 p.m. and be woken around 3 a.m. by his wife to switch off.

He would groggily approach a fence and shine a high-powered flashlight. “All I could see is eyes,” he said.

He’d shoo them off. But a few hours later, they would return.

As the winter wore on, the elk became increasingly brazen. Shouting no longer worked. They would stand firm, stare at him and stamp their feet.

Soon, the police whistle and bear-bangers became part of the Travis’ repertoire.

Eventually, in February, the territorial government chartered a helicopter to fly low above the herd and chase it away from Travis’ farm. The animals scattered, but smaller groups of five or six animals continued to pick away at his crops.

As a further deterrent, the territory pays a Takhini resident to chase elk with a dog.

Still, Travis estimates he spent $3,500 that year on replacing animal feed gobbled by elk and repairing fences they trampled.

“When a herd of 150 elk descends on the property, they’re like locusts. In a night they can devour a crop,” he said.

“They’re not very graceful animals,” he added. “They seem to go through a fence rather than over it.”

He also suspects the death of one of his elderly mares can be attributed to elk-induced panic.

And he knows of at least one case of a van colliding with an elk on the Takhini Valley Road.

“You go over a hill and you’re in the middle of a herd. You can’t see them until you’re on them.”

All this helps explain why Takhini Valley farmers like Travis are no fans of elk. It also helps explain why their MLA, Brad Cathers, has questioned the territory’s handling of the Takhini elk herd over the past week in the legislature.

It’s hoped by all that the introduction of Yukon’s first permitted elk hunt this September will make the animals less of a nuisance to farmers. But Cathers and Travis both worry that the territory is trying to keep the herd too big.

“If it wasn’t for the producers in this valley, there’d be a lot of dead, starved elk,” said Travis.

A 1990 study suggested that the Takhini Valley is able to support 100 elk. So why, Cathers wanted to know, had the Department of Environment set the target population for the herd at 175?

He didn’t receive an answer at the time from Environment Minister Elaine Taylor. But Rick Ward, Yukon’s elk biologist, said in an interview it’s because “the herd has grown, but so has the range.”

This expanded range – which does not include farmland – should have plenty of food to support the herd’s current size, he said.

The real reason elk are such a pest to farmers like Travis, said Ward, is that they’re discriminating eaters. The animals will pick Travis’ oats over wild grasses any day.

The permitted hunt is heavily weighted in favour of shooting elk near farmers’ fields. Hopefully, this will teach elk to stay clear, said Ward.

But the elk may first have to forget another lesson.

For the past two winters, wildlife officers have penned the Takhini elk in the spring to rid the herd of ticks. Travis worries that having the elk penned up and fed hay may have taught the animals to associate people with food.

“They hear the tractor, and that’s the dinner bell,” he said.

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

The Takhini herd now has an estimated population of 250, said Ward, while Travis and other farmers believe the herd may have grown to 400 animals.

Travis could always protect his farm with a bigger fence, but he expects that would cost him $100,000. The territory would chip in one-fifth of that cost, but it’s still too pricey for him.

So he’s decided to not grow oats this season. Neither will his neighbours.

This combination of fewer carrots and more sticks will hopefully teach elk to avoid farmland, and allow Travis and his wife to get a decent sleep this winter.

The territory released 36 hunting tags for the Takhini herd this season, which lasts until March. As of Thursday, 15 elk from the herd had been shot.

But Travis, for one, didn’t enter the lottery for a hunting tag.

“I don’t want to kill them,” he said. “I just want them gone.”

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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