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Managing wildlife/agriculture conflicts

Animal Health: Proper compensation part of the solution

There have been many articles written on the escalating conflict between wildlife and agriculture (both livestock and grain production) in certain areas of Canada. Our governments struggle to find balanced management options. The most recent survey (2014) on wildlife damage by Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) and the Miistakis Institute shows a high percentage of farms affected by wildlife.

The survey covered as many producers as possible whether they were having wildlife issues or not. It was very comprehensive and covered ungulates such as elk or deer, predators such as coyotes or cougars, as well as damage to grain from primarily waterfowl and ungulates. More than 80 per cent of respondents had damage from ungulates (deer and elk), while 74 per cent had damage from predators.

Coyotes caused half the predator damage in Alberta even though they are not considered a predator like mountain lions and wolves. Coyotes accounted for an overall loss of about one per cent of the entire cattle population — that is substantial. Governments need to do something regarding compensation and relaxing hunting laws. Wildlife has never had it so good.

There is no doubt most rural farm people like wildlife and enjoy seeing the odd moose, elk or bear (maybe not grizzly) at their farm. Many of my beef clients over the years were serious hunters, but with that also came a respect for the wildlife. They accepted a minor amount of damage over the years because they realized their farms are often located on or near important habitat.

Any interactions are good as long as they are in moderation and I emphasize moderation. We have heard about tons of grass or hay bales eaten and destroyed by a large herd of elk, or healthy calves being picked off by wolves and sometimes cougars — these losses affect a producer’s livelihood and we need solutions.

More cleared land and forage production has allowed especially ungulates to flourish. As environmentally conscious producers look after riparian areas that secondarily attracts more wildlife. With more deer and elk, predators have followed close behind. Feed supplies have increased because of good agricultural production of especially forages. The survey showed producers will tolerate some losses but a few individuals have experienced extreme losses.

Management options

Fencing feedyards and scaring the wildlife off have helped but many of these solutions are just temporary. When wildlife is healthy their reproductive rates go up and overpopulation becomes the major problem. For example, whether it is too many elk coming out of the Suffield military base in southeast Alberta or national parks being overgrazed, the issue usually comes down to population control. Harvesting is the all-encompassing answer to many of the problems.

Harvesting can mean extra hunting is allowed and producers get compensated for use of their land, or harvesting of animals happens by roundup. There are some areas where populations should be managed by trained biologists who have the power to make the right call. In the interim, compensation losses for lost standing forage, hay, or grain will help but if populations are high the losses will continue year after year. Moving a herd of elk or deer for instance off a ranch could just push the problem onto a neighbour’s property.

In many instances with the large ungulate herds the predators follow so often by default the same producer has two problems. Feed loss, damage to fences by ungulates coupled by predation on calves, foals and lambs by wolves, cougars and coyotes are the many losses producers experience.

In reading one article I learned there can be “good” and “bad” coyotes. Some stick to small prey like gophers and mice so don’t bother cattle. And being very territorial you want to keep a “good” family of coyotes on your farm.

Some provinces such as Saskatchewan have fairly comprehensive compensation programs that even covers losses due to coyotes. Agriculture loss from wildlife varies greatly across the provinces. In Ontario we could get into talks about raccoons or rats so wildlife losses can be very different between the provinces that’s why each province should develop compensation programs individually but Saskatchewan’s would make a good template.

As a veterinarian, the wildlife interactions I frequently hear about are the predation (deaths or injuries) from cattle being attacked. In these cases we need to verify the cause of death. In the past there was compensation for deaths but nothing for treatment of injured livestock. These are specific things that need to be looked at in developing compensation packages going forward. It serves no one if vigilante warfare takes place as frustrated producers feel they have nowhere to turn. While disease transmission is quite low because wildlife and cattle are different species, we do need to be vigilant about diseases such as brucellosis, tuberculosis and chronic wasting disease in elk as well as specific parasitic diseases. For example, brucellosis infected elk keep reinfecting a large bison herd in Montana.

Proper compensation

I know many urban dwellers want all wildlife preserved. But if their dog or cat was picked off by a cougar or their garden destroyed by a bunch of deer they’d have some idea of how farmers feel — the farm livelihood can be severely diminished in some cases. Compensation programs must be easy to administer, have black and white answers, and offer timely payments to producers.

Governments need to look at sustainable programs which provide producers with sufficient compensation for some losses and/or population reduction where warranted, yet also still meet the needs of conservationists and general public interested in catching a glimpse of wildlife.

Management options such as catching or relocating a problem bear is much different than catching and relocating a large herd of elk. Perhaps harvesting for the food bank should be looked at. It seems that relocating large groups may just move the problem and potentially upset the ecosystem somewhere else.

Striking the right balance is what we are after. I haven’t even talked about damages caused by migratory birds but generally there is compensation available with some restrictions. The Mistakis Institute survey indicated damage by birds was a distant third on the list to ungulates and predators.

The rules for all wildlife management programs need to be fine-tuned, kept current, reflect the main issues in each province and provide compensation where warranted. This will keep agriculture in harmony with wildlife and protect wildlife for future generations to experience. National parks and diversified livestock farms are still great places to get fairly close to “wildlife.” Be careful though as wildlife are just that “wild” and we don’t want any human injuries.

About the author

Columnist

Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.

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