SHOSHONE — A picture of elk quarters piled high on pallets was shared more than 5,600 times on Facebook in the last week, accruing nearly 700 comments and more than 1,000 “angry face” reactions.
The post from hunting and fishing group Idaho For Wildlife was one of several that circulated on social media decrying what critics called the “slaughter” of more than 200 elk carried out by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Commenters claimed the agency had harmed elk populations and accused it of cheating hunters out of the chance at a fair hunt.
Fish and Game officials said that’s not the case. Mike McDonald, regional wildlife manager for the agency’s Magic Valley Region, told the Statesman in a phone interview that some of the claims in the post missed the mark — and his office was inundated with questions as a result.
“The way I look at it, people are asking questions because they care,” McDonald said. “It’s a good thing. … It gave us an opportunity to explain what we’re doing and set the record straight.”
McDonald said the elk were killed as part of a study conducted by a University of Idaho graduate student researching deterrents for elk depredation, or property damage caused by the big-game animals. The study took place across Southern Idaho from Pocatello to Nampa between July and October of 2019.
The project included four “treatments” for elk depredation: deterring the elk by using fences, driving them away with hounds, spraying a non-toxic but bitter-tasting substance on crops and, finally, shooting and killing some members of herds.
In all, 206 elk were shot and killed on private property in multiple hunting units by the graduate student and Fish and Game technicians, McDonald said. Since some of the animals had begun grazing exclusively at night to avoid previous deterrents, the hunts happened at night. McDonald said, at most, six animals were killed in one night at one location. Meat from the animals was processed by a local butcher and distributed to food banks.
Concerns, conflicting info on Idaho elk study
Some posts about the elk research claimed 172 elk killed. McDonald said the true number, 206, may be jarring to some.
“That’s a big number, and I understand that,” McDonald said.
To put that in context, he said in two of the zones where the research was conducted, elk numbers combine for more than 18,000.
“It’s way less than 1% of elk in the region,” McDonald said.
For Steve Alder of Idaho For Wildlife, that doesn’t matter. He said he doesn’t believe Fish and Game’s population numbers are accurate. Instead, he thinks elk numbers are far lower based on anecdotes from fellow hunters and outdoorsmen who say they don’t see many of the animals.
“I talk to many people on the ground,” Alder said in a phone interview Friday.
McDonald said the goal of the research is to find the most effective way to reduce elk depredations, particularly in the Magic Valley where farmers and ranchers have filed an increasing number of claims for damage caused by the animals.
Fish and Game won’t know the outcome of the study until the student, who wasn’t identified by the agency, finishes his research. McDonald said the tentative timeline for that is late spring or early summer.
According to McDonald, the results of the study could help hunters. Last year, Fish and Game’s Magic Valley Region paid out more than $1.5 million on about 20 claims of property damage caused by elk herds. With more accurate information on how to deter the elk, and fewer claims, the agency could spend more money on wildlife management.
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McDonald said Fish and Game has been combating depredation for some time.
“We’ve been doing stuff like this for a long time, but we’ve never evaluated its effectiveness,” he said.
Critic claims Fish and Game not ‘transparent’ on elkThough Alder called the Fish and Game harvest “atrocious” and said he’d “never heard of an agency doing something like this,” perhaps his biggest bone to pick with the agency is on transparency.
He said Fish and Game only became transparent when viral posts started circulating online.
McDonald, however, said information on the effort was discussed publicly at season-setting meetings last winter. He also said he fielded calls as early as last fall from Idahoans who had questions about the study.
One of those calls was from Scott Schmid, president of Idaho State Bowhunters.
“Someone had made a comment (to me) about Fish and Game shooting elk at night,” Schmid said.
He called the agency, heard about the study and “forgot all about it,” he said. That’s because it didn’t raise any red flags for him.
“IDFG uses science-based management,” he said. “So in order to have science-based management, you’ve got to do some science.”
Elk controversy comes down to distrust
Schmid said a few friends and acquaintances raised the issue of the elk study to him. He commented on a few posts on social media to share the information he’d received from Fish and Game. He said the “fervor” over the post is mostly starting to die down.
“It was this sensationalized post,” Schmid said. “It had some real information in there … but they didn’t give all the information.”
“People were just believing (the post) and sharing it as gospel truth,” he continued. “Why do you not believe the officials but you believe this random person’s post on Facebook?”
Alder said there’s no situation in which he would trust Fish and Game’s information. He also doesn’t think there was a reason for the project.
“I don’t think we need a study,” he said. “I don’t have any faith in (Fish and Game or the University of Idaho).”
Schmid said he thinks that’s the viewpoint Idaho For Wildlife was trying to get across.
“The way it was presented by Idaho For Wildlife definitely did what they wanted, which is to instill distrust in Fish and Game,” he said. “I just try to make sure people have the correct information. I don’t care if it’s good or bad for Fish and Game, as long as it’s the facts and figures.”