We need a better approach to dealing with wildlife

Beef 911: Farming has created a great environment for wildlife 
but farmers are paying a steep price for the damage it causes

There have been many articles on the escalating conflict between wildlife and agriculture (both livestock and grain production) in certain areas of Canada.

Our governments are struggling as to what to do and the most recent survey on wildlife damage by Alberta Beef Producers and the Miistakis Institute shows a high percentage of farmers impacted by wildlife.

The survey was meant for 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; and damage to grain from primarily waterfowl and ungulates. More than 80 per cent had damage from deer and elk; 74 per cent had damage from predators; and coyotes caused half the predator damage in Alberta even though they are not considered a predator like mountain lions and wolves are. It accounted for an overall loss of about one per cent of the entire cattle population, which is substantial.

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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 came a respect for the wildlife. They accepted a minor amount of damage because in the populated areas of the province, their farms are where the habitat is.

Any of these interactions are good as long as they are in moderation and I stress moderation. The survey showed producers will tolerate some losses, but a few have extreme losses. When we hear of tons of grass or bales eaten and destroyed by a large herd of elk or healthy calves being picked off by wolves (and sometimes cougars), this is affecting a producer’s livelihood and we need solutions.

It is because of the amount of cleared land and forage that has been produced that has allowed especially the ungulates to flourish. It is the environmentally conscious producers who tend to look after things such as riparian areas that attract more wildlife. With more deer and elk, their predators have followed close behind.

Solutions such as fencing feed yards and scaring the wildlife off help, but many of these solutions are just temporary. When wildlife are healthy their reproductive rates go up and overpopulation becomes the major problem. Whether it is too many elk coming out of the Suffield range or national parks being overgrazed, the issue really comes down to population control. Harvesting is the all-encompassing answer to many of the problems — whether by allowing extra hunting or harvesting 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 and grain will help. But if populations are high, the losses will continue year after year after year. Moving a herd of elk or deer off your place, for instance, just drives them on to the neighbours. Since predators follow large ungulate herds, producers have, by default, two problems.

One article I read talked about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ coyotes. Some stick to gophers and mice and so don’t bother cattle, and since coyotes are very territorial you want to keep a good family of coyotes on your farm.

Some provinces compensate for coyote losses, but others — such as Alberta and Saskatchewan — don’t. Agriculture loss from wildlife varies greatly across the provinces (in Ontario, raccoons and rats are an issue) so each province should develop their own compensation programs.

As a veterinarian, the wildlife interactions I frequently hear about are cattle injuries or deaths from predators. 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 because frustrated producers feel they have nowhere to turn.

While disease transmission is quite low because of species differences, it still is a two-way street — both agriculture to wildlife and wildlife to agriculture. With diseases such as brucellosis, tuberculosis, and chronic wasting disease in elk, as well as specific parasitic diseases, we need to be ever vigilant and have good surveillance systems.

I know many urban dwellers want all wildlife preserved, but the analogy of their own pet dog or cat being picked off by a cougar or their garden being destroyed by a bunch of deer describes how farmers sometimes feel. And for some farmers, their livelihood can be severely diminished by wildlife damage.

Compensation programs must be easy to administer, have black and white answers, and offer timely payments. Governments need to look at sustainable programs to provide producers with enough compensation for some losses and population reduction where warranted, yet still have people catch that glimpse of wildlife. 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 unbalance the ecosystem somewhere else. I would think with the damage to our vehicles and injuries we incur in encounters with wildlife (especially deer and moose) that insurance companies would welcome a reduction of deer, especially in populated areas.

Striking the right balance is what we are after. I haven’t even talked about migratory birds. Generally there is compensation but not when winter swath grazing crop is destroyed. The Miistakis Institute survey indicated damage by birds was a distant third on the list to ungulates and predators.

The rules for all wildlife programs need to be fine tuned, kept current, reflect the main issues in each province, and offer compensation or assistance when 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 is just that — wild — and we don’t want any human injuries.)

Let’s all push for a fair resolution to this. The entire survey report is on the Alberta Beef Producers website. At the very least, read the 10-page summary for a better understanding of what is happening.

About the author

Contributor

Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.

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