Idaho Fish and Game biologists say non-lethal methods of preventing elk depredation are starting to pay off.
So far this year, Fish and Game says they haven't used sharpshooters in the Magic Valley Region. Instead, they're focusing on non-lethal methods like hazing that uses noisemakers and other methods to scare elk away from crops.
"The hazing idea is to change elk behavior. If that works, and we don't have to do anything else, that's great. That would be our perfect situation," explained Terry Thompson, Fish and Game Magic Valley's Communications Director.
Biologists say those efforts are starting to pay off.
"At the property where we've had a lot of issues in the past near Little Camas Reservoir, our technicians have been hazing since July 15, and the elk use in those agriculture fields has been extremely low," said John Guthrie, a Regional Wildlife Biologist with Fish and Game.
Hazing is just one of four management tools Fish and Game is utilizing to help reduce crop damage. Another is working with landowners to provide public access for hunters--but so far that hasn't been as successful as they'd hoped.
"We've tried to take a more proactive managed hunting approach and landowners weren't specifically interested in allowing us to look into that program," Guthrie said.
Elk depredation is an expensive problem.
When deer, pronghorn antelope or elk damage crops, hunters and anglers pay the price. In 1990, the Idaho Legislature mandated that Fish and Game compensate farmers for damage.
Idaho News 6 reported back in January every deer and elk permit includes a fee for depredation, and in May of 2017, with depredation payouts increasing, the legislature approved another fee.
In 2018, in excess of $1 million was paid for damages caused by elk, according to the Fish and Game Website.
Much of that money was paid to a specific farmer in the Little Camas area whose organic potatoes were being damaged by the elk.
While the landowner in the Little Camas area isn't participating with Fish and Game to allow hunters access to his land, a few landowners are.
"Fish and Game accompanied sportsmen and women onto a property that has historically allowed very little public access, so we were successful there," Guthrie said.
In 2019, because of intensive prevention efforts, including hazing, hunting, and sharpshooting to mitigate elk damage, crop damages were down nearly 75% from the previous year. That’s a reduction of over $750,000 worth of damage.
As part of those efforts, Fish and Game started a research project with the University of Idaho, hoping to find effective ways to reduce crop damage.
Earlier this year, that project had huge backlash via the internet when photos of butchered elk appeared on Facebook.
As part of the research project, Fish and Game sharpshooters dispatched at night when elk were moving into farmland to feed. The sharpshooters killed 206 elk, mostly in the Magic Valley Region.
"We have employed department sharpshooters to try to implement that component by removing a small number of elk at a time to try to teach those elk not to come into the crops," said State Wildlife Manager Jon Rachel.
What about the meat from those 206 elk? A Facebook post by Idaho for Wildlife made earlier this year initially claimed that because many of the elk were taken in summer, the meat rotted.
"Yeah, that couldn't be further from the truth," said McDonald.
McDonald says those elk were immediately field-dressed, placed in a refrigerated truck. From there, their partners at Idaho Hunters Feeding the Hungry was able to process and distribute that elk meat to nine food banks around the Magic Valley Region.
That meat is now helping those struggling with food insecurity because of the coronavirus.
"20,000 pounds of meat, and then a quarter pound of protein for a meal produces 80,000 meals," Shroeder said. "We had a good supply that we were able to give since March. That is so needed, by so many people. Especially at this time with this coronavirus issue. It reaches more people and people that are really in need for this good quality food too."
Liz Mandelkow with Mustard Seed says the donation has been a huge help with meeting the need their food pantry is facing because of the pandemic.
"By having that donated and being a free resource to us, those dollars then can be spent in other areas that we don't have things donated like beef or hamburger," Mandelkow said.
Idaho for Wildlife has since removed that claim from their post.
What exactly is depredation? Fish and Game says it's any damage the elk cause to private property--including crops, livestock, nurseries, and even beehives.
Depredation isn't a new problem. Fish and Game has been working to stop it for years now, but it's been made worse by skyrocketing elk populations in the area.
Fish and Game has worked since 2017 with a producer in the Little Camas area to prevent and reduce crop damage by elk. At times, this elk herd has exceeded 450 animals, the website says.
"We have more elk than we've ever had," explained Mike McDonald, Regional Wildlife Manager with Fish and Game. "We have some really good habitat on private property--irrigated agriculture in particular."
Fish and Game has also issued kill permits to landowners struggling with elk depredation.