For decades ranchers in Alberta have suffered from economic losses due to elk forage depredation. This especially has been the case in the Cypress Hills, the Foothills and more recently along the northern boundary of CFB Suffield. The government’s unwillingness to adequately compensate landowners for their economic losses has made this situation intolerable for producers.
The Americans are taking a different approach to this issue. There is a growing body of research reviewing the interaction between wildlife and livestock on ranches, the economic costs incurred by producers due to wildlife and the alternatives available to producers to recover these costs. One of these papers is entitled: “Elk Management Strategies and Profitability of Beef Cattle Ranches” by W. L. F Torstenson, M. W. Tess, and J. Knight. (Published in the Journal of Range Management, 2002, Volume 55, pages117-126).
The ranches taking part in this study were located in Southwest Montana. The size of the ranches involved in the study ranged in size from 240 to 1,150 head of cattle. The number of elk coming onto these ranches ranged from 50 to 420 head. The researchers used a computer model to calculate the economic losses incurred from elk depredation and determine the best mechanism to compensate the ranchers. The researchers found elk costs incurred by the ranchers ranged between $8 and $14 per AUM. The research also concluded the ranchers’ would realize an increase in gross profit and an increase in stocking rates if elk were completely removed and an increase in stocking rates if elk were completely eliminated.
The researchers considered several methods to compensate the ranchers for their losses. These mechanisms were: 1) block management, 2) allowing the landowner to lease hunting rights to outfitters and 3) the exchange of forage. Block management refers to an agreement between private landowners and the state of Montana. The state provides monetary incentives to landowners in exchange for wildlife habitat and hunter access.
Forage exchange is an option where: the economic value of the forage is determined and then is either replaced with forage of equal value or the landowner is offered a cash payment. The researchers concluded any one of these mechanisms would provide sufficient revenue to offset the losses incurred from elk depredation.
It is not surprising to note the situation these ranchers face is very similar to the situation many ranchers in Southern Alberta deal with. However, given the reluctance of the general public in Alberta to allow outfitters and landowners to set an economic value on recreation, allowing outfitters to lease hunting rights from landowners would create more problems than it would solve. On the other hand, a provincial block hunting management program and a forage exchange program are viable options.
Block management programs have a number of positive attributes. The most obvious is the annual payment to landowners for the wildlife habitat they maintain. In addition, this program would give the landowner the ability to coordinate the wildlife management efforts and recreational activities with other ranching activities.
A forage exchange program also provides a mechanism to compensate ranchers. The economic value of the forage consumed by elk is calculated and the rancher is then fully compensated for his losses. Here are some examples of how this program might work.
Example #1. Ranchers around the Cypress Hills Provincial Park have had a chronic elk problem for decades. A survey is conducted on those ranches with an elk depredation problem to determine how much grass is consumed by elk. Each rancher with an elk depredation problem would then be entitled to graze the equivalent number of cattle in the park at no cost.
Example #2. It has been determined elk are consuming Y tons of hay (or Y AUMs of grass) and the hay costs $X/ton (or the grass costs $X/AUM). The government purchases Y tons of hay of equal quality and value to replace the lost hay (or grass). This forage is then delivered, at no cost, to the producer.
Example #3. It has been determined elk are consuming Y tons of hay (or Y AUMs of grass) and the hay costs $X/ton (or the grass costs $X/AUM). The government pays the producer for the full value of hay (or grass) consumed by elk.
Although the research described in this paper was based on computer simulations and as such had some limitations, the paper did a very good job of highlighting the economic costs incurred by a number of ranchers in Montana. The paper also presented reasonable options that allowed these ranchers to recoup most of their economic losses. The models used by this paper can be adapted for use in Alberta and Western Canada. Perhaps it is time the government’s of Western Canada began to realise the most effective way to maintain critical wildlife habitat is to adopt realistic ways of compensating landowners for the economic losses they incur from wildlife..
Hyland Armstrong is a retired rancher from the Cypress Hills Alberta. He can be reached at [email protected]or 403 528 4798.