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Elk feeding site

Elk graze Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016, at a feeding site in the Sawtooth National Forest near Ketchum.

SHOSHONE — After a Facebook post earlier this month showing elk quarters ready to be processed was shared widely, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has been trying to set the record straight on the details of the kills.

The post by a Magic Valley resident said the animals were killed by hunters Fish and Game hired, following a depredation complaint by a farmer north of Shoshone.

Terry Thompson, the communications manager for Idaho Fish and Game’s Magic Valley region, told Boise State Public Radio that 206 elk were killed as part of a collaborative research study between Fish and Game and a University of Idaho graduate student. He said the elk were killed by Fish and Game staff, not hired hunters, it happened over the course of a four-month period — from July to October of last year — and they were taken from land all over Southern Idaho, not just one farm.

The goal of the study is to understand how to prevent depredations, which are increasingly common as elk populations get bigger in the valleys.

In the Magic Valley region, which includes the Snake River Plain and extends into the Sawtooth Mountains, there are around 15,000 to 20,000 elk. Fish and Game says elk numbers are at or over the management objectives in all of the region’s zones.

This year, to help bring the population down, Fish and Game opened a general hunt on antlerless elk in the Pioneer and Smoky-Bennett zones, and provided 5,000 tags on a first-come, first-served basis. The results of the hunts will be available in the spring, but the department is hoping to see a 30% success rate, in part because more elk in these areas means more encounters on agricultural land.

“Depredation is an ongoing issue,” Thompson said. In fiscal year 2019, depredations cost the Magic Valley region $1,598,720, the majority of which was made up of damages to standing crops by elk.

If elk damage fewer crops, Thompson said, more money could be spent on managing a healthy population versus on depredations, which is why the University of Idaho study could help hunters, he said.

The researchers and Fish and Game staff worked with five landowners in five different game management areas that stretched from Weiser to Arco. They tested four methods to change elk behavior from harming agricultural land and crops. Sharpshooting — which was responsible for the 206 elk killed — was one, and it tries to get elk to change their migration and feeding habits.

“A lot of people are upset that we did not allow hunters to take these animals,” Thompson said. The reason, he said, is based on data from collaring around 75 elk, which showed they were predominantly in the fields at night. Hunting at night is illegal and a public safety threat, Thompson said.

“We couldn’t allow hunters to go out at night for fear that someone could get hurt or shot,” he said.

The most the team ever harvested in a night at one treatment site was seven, Thompson said. After they were killed, the elk were field-dressed, put in refrigerated trailers or freezers, brought to a meat processor in Jerome and then the meat was donated to Idaho Hunters Feeding the Hungry and distributed to local food banks. While the original Facebook post showed piles of elk quarters, Thompson said that amount could have been the result of multiple days in the field.

Other techniques that were tested in the two-year study include changing fence designs, spraying crops with deterrent substances and using dogs to get elk out of standing corn fields.

“If we can come away from this project and are better equipped and prepared to minimize depredation on private land, it’s money well spent,” Thompson said.

Federal funds and money from state sporting licenses paid for the study, and the state portion was $123,241, which was about one-third of the total. These dollars funded the elk behavior modification research and a similar project with white-tailed deer in northern Idaho. The results of the elk depredation study should be available this spring or summer.

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Rachel Cohen is the south-central Idaho reporter for Boise State Public Radio and a Report for America corps member.

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