TWIN FALLS, IDAHO — These elk, grazing just north of Mountain Home are part of a population that Fish and Game managers say has grown too large.
"We're talking almost three thousand elk above our top-end objective," said State Wildlife Manager Jon Rachel.
So why is that a problem? Depredation. The growing population has created problems, mostly for farmers.
And 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, and two summers ago, that compensation went through the roof.
The farmland here in Elmore county is now covered with snow, and elk have moved to lower elevation to spend the winter. But in the summer of 2018 those elk found something they liked here; organic potatoes. And a farmer growing those potatoes said those elk did more than one million dollars in damage to his crops. He made a claim, and fish and game paid him off.
"Yeah, we came up with a claim of one point two million dollars in loss to that farmer's crop," said Rachel.
That money came from an account funded by various fees paid by hunters and anglers. Every deer and elk permit includes a fee for depredation, and in may of 2017, with depredation payouts increasing, the legislature approved another fee. A five dollar access/depredation fee to pay private landowners who allow access to their land, and to pay farmers like Don McFarland when big game animals damage their crops.
Fish and Game also started a research project with the University of Idaho, hoping to find effective ways to reduce crop damage. And last week, that project created an internet furor, 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 Rachel.
So if the farms weren't there, would the ecosystem support the elk population?
"Yeah, probably," said Magic Valley Regional Wildlife Manager Mike McDonald. "But that's also like saying if Twin Falls wasn't there, would we have more wildlife? Probably."
And what about the meat from those 206 elk? A Facebook post by Idaho for Wildlife 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 and taken to a processor where they were butchered and distributed to nine food banks.
Idaho for Wildlife has now removed that claim from their post.
The U of I research project tested three other methods of keeping elk off of farmland; fencing, spraying crops to make them taste bad, and using hounds.
Managers are also looking to hunters to reduce elk numbers in the Magic Valley region. Last year they nearly doubled the number of elk permits available in the Smokey Bennett Zone, where they say elk are doing the most damage to crops.
"What we were targeting was trying to kill a thousand elk a year for two years," said McDonald.
With the deadline for mandatory hunter reports approaching, Mcdonald says he hopes to get a handle on whether that happened last fall.
As for the U of I study, he says results from that should be available in late spring.
Last year Governor little signed into law legislation that limits the amount paid for any single depredation claim to ten percent of the money in the expendable big game depredation trust account.