Outdoors Blog

Elk, deer raided farms, ranches in Weiser — yet the workers there saved them

Feeding sites east of Weiser provided much-needed nutrition to about 1,000 mule deer. Still, dozens of deer were found dead in the area.
Feeding sites east of Weiser provided much-needed nutrition to about 1,000 mule deer. Still, dozens of deer were found dead in the area. ccripe@idahostatesman.com

There’s a complicated relationship between wildlife and the people who work the land that surrounds Weiser.

Elk and deer herds come out of the hills in winter, trample farm fields and raid stored crops — never more so than this winter, when two to three feet of snow was on the ground in January-February.

As the problem worsened this winter and damages reached the tens of thousands of dollars, landowners and ranch hands banded together and worked with Idaho Fish and Game. They set up and serviced feed sites on private land to keep the elk out of the fields and prevent the deer from dying by the hundreds.

“We don’t like them (on the property), but we don’t want to see 400 head of elk dying, either,” said Jeff Widener, the manager of Sage Rock Ranch who ran an elk-feeding site for several weeks. “... It was a group effort. We all came in with a plan and we executed it and it was absolutely perfect.”

[Related: Idaho Fish and Game spending more to feed big game than any winter on record]

Simultaneously, Fish and Game wildlife biologists Katie Oelrich and Nathan Borg attacked the problem from a different perspective. They received a $16,000 grant from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to collar 20 elk this winter in the Weiser-Cambridge corridor along U.S. 95. The Weiser River Zone contained a whopping 3,000 more cow elk than Fish and Game would like when the area was surveyed in 2013.

The best way to lower that number is through hunting. But first, Fish and Game needs to know where those animals can be found during hunting season. The collaring effort should provide some answers.

“Winter feeding, depredation and collaring go hand in hand,” Oelrich said. “... We’re trying to be more aggressive but we’re not getting the type of harvest we’d like. (Hunters) just are not as successful and (the Weiser tags) don’t sell out.”

I received a crash course in winter feeding, depredation (damage to private property caused by wildlife) and collaring during a pair of ride-alongs with Fish and Game in late February — one with Mark Sands, the district conservation officer based in Weiser, and the other with Oelrich and Borg while they checked their elk traps for collaring targets (they went 0-for-5 that day). Here’s how Fish and Game is trying to solve a problem that has been brewing for more than a decade:

‘Spoiled bunch of elk’

Sands was driving into the Weiser Flats, an area west of town that extends to the foothills, as he recounted the workload he faced this winter. He spent “99 percent” of his time on winter feeding and depredation, he said, leaving little time for his usual enforcement work. One day, he received 40 phone calls about wildlife problems.

“It’s been an interesting winter in Weiser,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve had to deal with anything like this.”

Sands, who has worked in Weiser for 13 years, covers a territory that is predominantly private land. Hundreds of elk spill into the farm fields on the Weiser Flats each winter — pummeling the ground when they move and tearing it up in search of food, with a particular preference for the remnants of sugar beets grown in the area.

“It literally looks like a bomb went off,” Sands said.

[Related: Some Idahoans say largest wildlife feeding program in years too late for elk]

Widener has wanted to do an elk feeding site on 12,000-acre Sage Rock Ranch for more than a dozen years. But Fish and Game is only allowed to feed in emergencies, which are declared based on the condition of the animals, snow levels and temperatures. When the snow started to pile up in early January and then was crusted with ice by a combination of rain and frigid temperatures, Widener called Sands. Widener offered to pull together some of the landowners, farmers and ranchers in the area. Sands got the right folks from Fish and Game involved. They all met — and within a couple of days the feeding began on Sage Rock Ranch, in an area near the foothills where the animals’ damage would be limited.

Fish and Game purchased the feed, some of it from local farmers whose hay was raided by elk; Amalgamated Sugar in Nampa donated eight dump-truck loads of sugar beet tailings; and the locals handled the daily feedings.

“They do a lot of damage to the farm ground — not just on our place but all the farmers around here were affected by it,” Widener said. “They cost a lot of money. This winter was extreme. By doing a feed site and trying to keep the elk off the farm ground, it worked. They never did go back down onto the farm ground.”

Without the feed site, the elk likely would have kept pawing their way through the region — one sugar beet field at a time.

“It’s like candy,” Widener said. “... They’ve been doing it for years. They know which fields. There could be two feet of snow out there and they know which fields had the beets.”

Once the plan was designed, the first step was to get the elk to the feed site. Fish and Game and the locals used snowmobiles to herd elk.

“We moved them more than three miles through 30 inches of snow, which was pretty impressive,” Sands said.

Widener’s crew put out three pounds of hay per elk per day, more than 1,000 pounds per day. The elk ate in the late afternoon and stayed in the area until they heard the tractor start in the morning.

Widener started with about 300 elk and the herd peaked at nearly 400.

“Enough to where I can’t remember all their names,” he joked. “... They’re a spoiled bunch of elk.”

Sands and Widener hope to get a grant to plant some areas of Sage Rock Ranch near the foothills with food specifically for the elk. The hope is that the elk will stop at that food source rather than continuing into the agricultural fields.

Many fields are prepped and/or planted in the fall. If they are corrugated for irrigation in the fall and then a herd of elk moves through, the water will follow the elk trail in the spring.

Fixing that problem is “hard labor,” Widener said.

‘Very tolerant’ landowners

Several hundred elk were a problem east of Weiser, too, but the bigger issue was deer — an estimated 1,000 mule deer. Western Idaho also picked up 250 pronghorn that crossed the Snake River from Oregon when it was frozen and couldn’t get back, Sands said.

The foothills usually have enough open land to give deer the nutrients they need to survive the winter. This year, they were covered with deep, crusty snow. Deer ended up raiding farming and ranching operations, and many died from eating food that they couldn’t digest. Some also died when people tried to feed them but didn’t realize they were giving them the wrong food.

“Deer have a really tough time getting through that crust (on top of snow),” Sands said. “Elk are tougher and can paw through it. The deer were walking on top of it.”

The conditions were met for emergency feeding but Sands had to figure out how to do it on private land. Again, the landowners, farmers and ranchers worked together to provide the locations, store food and conduct feedings.

“Both of the feed-lot owners were very, very tolerant,” Sands said. “Hats off to them, because it was affecting their pocketbooks — directly affecting their pocketbooks.”

Calvin Hickey and his brother, Curtis, own a farm in the area. They stored and delivered the deer pellets, which are formulated by a veterinarian specifically to meet the requirements of mule deer. The Hickeys shoveled 30 inches of snow off a roof on the property. The snow was so deep that the elk were using the road, Calvin said.

“We were putting out 24 bags (of pellets) a day,” Calvin said. “They’re 50 pounds each. That’s half a ton a day, basically.”

The deer became a nuisance, he said, but as a lifelong hunter he wanted to help when he saw deer that were “hungry and dying.”

“We didn’t hesitate to volunteer,” he said. “I’m sure by feeding them we saved a lot of them.”

Still, dozens of deer died on his and neighbors’ property. Calvin collected deer carcasses to bury.

“I thought I dug the hole plenty big, but it’s full,” he said two weeks ago. “I bet there’s 60 deer in there.”

Sneaky elk

A few days later and 30 miles up U.S. 95, I met Oelrich and Borg to learn about their efforts to collar elk. Oelrich is the landowner sportsman coordinator for the Southwest Region based in Nampa. She also works on the Access Yes!, depredation and winter feeding programs.

She hopes through collaring elk she can learn enough about the animals’ habits to reduce elk numbers and depredation in the Weiser River Zone.

“This is a growing elk herd,” she said. “With the increasing number of depredations and increasing number of cow elk and increasing number of tags not being filled, we’ve started talking to the landowners about, ‘Where do they go?’ ”

Fish and Game set up “clover” traps at various sites to try to capture elk for collaring. They’re basically cages, baited with food to attract the elk. When the elk enter, the door drops behind them. The biologists tranquilize the animal, give it a quick exam, place a collar around its neck and place two ear tags (one for identification and the other to warn hunters not to eat the meat within 28-30 days of the tranquilizer usage). The elk is released within about 30 minutes of biologists arriving at the trap. The collar batteries last eight years and report two positions per day.

The biologists target cows because calves have less chance of surviving the winter and bulls’ necks swell during their rut (they can be loners, too). They want to know where the herd goes.

“A lot of movements of elk are directed by a lead cow,” Borg said.

Once they know where the problematic herd is going, they can increase tags in a certain hunting zone to lower the numbers. They also could get advance warning when the elk are about to show up in the agricultural fields again. While winter gets the attention, elk are a year-round problem for the agriculture industry in western Idaho.

In one case, the elk are known to eat from a farmer’s 800 acres of high-quality alfalfa at night and retreat to a neighbor’s property during the day. The 10,000-acre neighboring property doesn’t allow hunting, so they’re untouchable.

“How do we get at those elk?” Oelrich asks. “Maybe we can get them when they’re off that private land. Maybe these radio collars will help us determine that. ... A lot of landowners we’re working with really want to help answer that question as well. It affects their livelihood.”

Claims could top $60,000

In the meantime, Oelrich is left to deal with the mess the elk create. She expects to receive perhaps $60,000-plus in depredation claims in the Weiser-Cambridge corridor. That doesn’t include the $1,000 deductible per claimant and other damages that likely won’t be claimed (landowners who didn’t allow “reasonable” hunting access during the previous season aren’t eligible for compensation).

Claims are paid 50 percent when approved and the other 50 percent at the end of the fiscal year (June 30) if money remains available.

The depredation fund for the entire state is $300,000, funded by sportsmen. A proposal before the Legislature this year would add another $500,000 to that fund through increased fees.

“This year is just going to be epic,” Oelrich said of claims.

When Fish and Game receives complaints about depredation, the first methods it tries are non-lethal. Scare tactics, or hazing, might get the animals to leave. The department has provided fence panels to farmers to protect haystacks and other stored crops (the Legislature provided $500,000 for this purpose last year, Oelrich said). When winter feeding conditions are met, feed sites can draw elk away from agriculture.

If none of those methods work, lethal options can be used. In a depredation hunt, a landowner can select half the hunters who receive tags and the rest are pulled from a list of hunters who applied. The landowner must allow hunting on the property. In the Weiser area, 400 depredation hunt tags were made available and, as of two weeks ago (when the elk left the area), about 200 had been distributed. How many elk were harvested is unknown.

If the landowner doesn’t allow hunting, it’s possible to get a “kill permit,” Oelrich said. But that is limited to the landowner and select ranch hands. They must field-dress the animal and give the meat to charity.

A lack of hunting access is one of the limiting factors to Fish and Game’s ability to manage the Weiser River herd, Oelrich said. Many landowners in the region, with parcels of 10,000 acres plus, don’t permit hunting.

“If they say, ‘We don’t want any hunting on our property,’ it really limits what we can do to help them,” Oelrich said. “... It only takes gutting and cleaning two elk to be over it.”