With a herd of 400 elk wandering through the vast fields and hobby farms near Heart Mountain, Wyoming Game and Fish Department game wardens and wildlife technicians have the important job of ensuring …
With a herd of 400 elk wandering through the vast fields and hobby farms near Heart Mountain, Wyoming Game and Fish Department game wardens and wildlife technicians have the important job of ensuring the herd doesn’t co-mingle with livestock or damage winter crops and fences. The community is a checkerboard of landowners who don’t want the elk on their land and others who are thrilled to have wildlife in the vicinity.
Game and Fish is tasked with hazing the elk away from private land as efficiently as possible. Crews do soft pushes to move the elk to safe ground, often back toward state and federal public lands near Heart Mountain, although the herd is technically part of the Clarks Fork herd, said Jordan Winter, Powell-area game warden. It’s important to keep them at a safe distance from livestock due to fears of passing disease; primarily brucellosis, he said.
According to the World Health Organization, brucellosis is a bacterial disease which mainly infects cattle, swine, goats, sheep and dogs. Humans can acquire the disease through direct contact with infected animals, by eating or drinking contaminated animal products or by inhaling airborne agents. The Center for Disease Control says person-to-person spread of brucellosis is extremely rare.
The elk come down into the more densely populated neighborhoods for groceries. Agricultural fields offer an easier browse for the herd than sagebrush steppe, common on nearby public land. However, those groceries are often meant for livestock. The loss of winter browse, which can be quickly decimated by a large herd of elk, might mean a resident with horses, for example, will have to pay for feed or forego leasing the land to other horse owners.
Landowners can rent their fields monthly to horse owners by the horse, but only if they have enough food to sustain several horses during the winter. It’s an important source of revenue. But a herd of 400 elk can make quick work of winter browse. Elk can also do a number on fences, said Heart Mountain farmer Brian Asher.
“The elk are definitely tough on a temporary fence like [electric fences], or any fence for that matter,” he said. “But they definitely wreak havoc on the electric wires.”
When the elk come through, Asher is forced to spend time fixing the problem.
“It’s mainly the time going out there and fixing it,” he said. “You know, you got half a day to catch horses and round them up as they usually get out. And then you have to go out there and re-fix the fence.”
Asher has been happy with the response of Game and Fish and he has worked closely with the department to control elk and pronghorns, which have become increasingly intrusive in the area in recent years.
“The Game and Fish has been really excellent, pushing them back up in the high country,” he said.
Asher said the response time has been good, yet he knows staffers are caught in a difficult situation, with some residents not wanting the department to push the animals off their property. Asher gives access to hunters, which is the main management tool for the department. Because he works with the department to help with the issue, he can also claim losses due to wildlife damage.
“If someone is going to make a claim that elk have damaged their property — grass or whatever — there’s a process in which they have to go through in order to request damages,” Winter said.
When a claim is made, a department representative evaluates the damage in person to assess the problem. But in order to do that, you have to allow for access, either onto your land or across your land, to allow for the public [hunters] to come and assist.
When wildlife and humans live in the same place, there is potential for conflict, the department advises. A number of species have adapted to urban and suburban areas and can be quite common in residential developments.
“As cities in Wyoming continue to grow, residential development around the periphery impacts wildlife habitat and displaces animals,” the department said in a recent press release.
It’s not just a Powell-area issue. Winter said the South Fork has been demanding the department’s time as well. And much of western Wyoming has been under a blanket of deeper-than-normal snow and experiencing severe, cold temperatures, causing elk to raid haystacks and livestock feedlines.
Due to the increase in damage and the risk of co-mingling with livestock, Game and Fish Department officials initiated emergency elk feeding in several locations in the western part of the state.
“Harsh winters are not uncommon in the West, but it has been a while since we have experienced winter conditions like this in western Wyoming,” said Doug Brimeyer, deputy chief of the Game and Fish wildlife division. “The deep snow and harsh winter conditions have pushed elk to lower elevations and habitats they don’t typically spend time at during the winter.”
Winter, who is the former access coordinator for the department, said not only is hunter access key to keeping “over management objectives” species in check, but keeping the land open, rather than divided into small parcels, is important to wildlife, providing them the habitat to thrive.
Asher is a proponent of a late season hunt that would help bring the species back down to management objectives. But he worries about the safety of hunting close to homes and roads.
“I’ve allowed hunting on my farm in the past and don’t mind it at all, but you just have to be really mindful about where your bullets [are] traveling with everybody. [You] definitely don’t want to see anybody get hurt,” he said.
Given the widely differing opinions of area landowners, Asher said the job of hazing wildlife off private property to reduce damage must be frustrating for Game and Fish employees. Yet, Winter shrugged it off.
“It’s just part of the job,” he said. “Elk are gonna go where their bellies take them. So we just try to work with landowners to provide access to the public to hopefully have opportunities to harvest an elk during the hunting season.”