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North American elk are returning to the prairies of western South Dakota after more than 100 years of absence, a migration seen as a win for wildlife conservation but which has farmers and ranchers bothered by feed losses and property damage.
The herding of Rocky Mountain elk as far east as Jones and Stanley counties has led to calls for a new hunting season on the prairie to reduce elk numbers and the damage they are causing.
Landowners on the prairies north of Philip and west of Pierre say elk — one of the largest herbivores native to North America — are increasingly grazing in their fields and pastures and are damaging fences and eating food meant for their livestock. Previously, elk mainly resided only in the Black Hills region 175 miles or more to the west.
Spending by the Game, Fish & Parks Department Wildlife Damage Program on elk-related complaints jumped by nearly $100,000 in 2019. Wildlife damage specialists also covered 7,000 more miles to assist landowners with elk damage in 2019 than in 2018.
Partially in response to landowner complaints and in the wake of more elk sightings, GFP officials have proposed that the game and parks commission approve creation of a massive new elk hunting unit.
“We know there’s elk in there, and we’re actually talking about opening that up for hunting at some point,” GFP Secretary Kelly Hepler told News Watch in an interview.
Under the proposal, a total of 10 “any elk” hunting licenses would be made available for use in the new hunting unit. The unit would cover all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River that doesn’t already have an elk hunting season or isn’t managed by one of the state’s tribal nations.
Tom Kirschenmann, wildlife division chief for GFP, said the new unit would be something of an experiment.
The experiment is needed because the department doesn’t actually know much about elk populations outside the Black Hills. In that region, elk are counted every three to four years using aircraft flying low and slow over the mountains. The effort produces a reliable population estimate, biologists say. Current estimates put the number of elk in the Black Hills at around 7,200 animals, well within the population range sought by the GFP.
Out on the prairie, aerial surveys would be too expensive because there is too much ground to cover. Instead, GFP biologists have relied on landowners reporting elk sightings or damage.
If the new West River elk hunting unit is approved during the next GFP Commission meeting scheduled for March 5 and 6 in Pierre, it would be in place for the next two hunting seasons. Information on where elk are killed, when they’re killed and whether landowners still have problems after elk hunting occurs would be used to inform decisions on whether more targeted hunting will be needed, Kirschenmann said.
Hunters will likely be eager to help out. Last year, South Dakota residents sent in more than 17,000 applications for the roughly 1,500 elk hunting licenses issued by the state. Most of those licenses were issued for the Black Hills, where there is plenty of public land for hunting.
Outside the Black Hills, the vast majority of land is privately owned and getting access to that land can be a challenge, said Chris Hesla, executive director of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit that advocates for wildlife and public hunting access.
“The easiest way to control wildlife damage is through hunting,” he said. “We need to look at getting more access so we can harvest enough animals.”
Landowners, though, are worried that 10 hunting licenses won’t be enough to affect what they say is a steadily growing population of large, wild animals that are competing with their cattle for food and decimating crops.
Eric Jennings, a cattle rancher near Spearfish who is president of the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, said elk populations in western South Dakota have grown faster than GFP has so far been able to respond.
“I have been advocating for them to do more for years,” Jennings said. “It’s just an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Ty Eisenbraun, who raises cattle near the Cheyenne River in northeast Pennington County is one of the landowners dealing with an elk problem. He said elk have shown up on his property every fall since 2012, and that at first he was happy to see the animals. But now that he has counted more than 100 elk at a time in his alfalfa fields, he sees them as a problem.
“I kind of enjoy them. I can step out of my house and hear elk bugling,” Eisenbraun said. “They’re cool, but they’re kind of destructive, too.”
Elk are native to South Dakota. Historical records show elk were hunted on both sides of the Missouri River in the Dakota Territory through much of the 19th century. Over-hunting before the creation of modern conservation practices eliminated elk from both Dakotas before 1900.
In 1916, elk were reintroduced into what would become Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills. The idea was to keep the animals contained to the parks so they wouldn’t compete with area ranchers’ cattle. After 1980, elk management priorities changed and the GFP began trying to expand the Black Hills elk herd to provide more hunting opportunities. Now, the state manages for a herd of between 6,000 and 8,000 animals, depending on weather and range conditions.
Yet elk are naturally transient. As the Black Hills elk herd has grown, more of the animals are moving out and away from the mountains into areas dominated by cattle ranching and farm fields.
Farmers and ranchers in South Dakota have always had to deal with wildlife, such as deer and antelope, eating food meant for their cattle or sheep and eating grain in their fields before harvest. Elk, though, are a little different. They can weigh up to 700 pounds and tend to graze more like cattle.
Unlike cattle, elk will run through fences or knock them over while attempting to jump them. Fence damage has been the biggest problem for Eisenbraun. This year, he’s had to replace more than a mile of fence because elk keep knocking it over. Fences are critical to ranchers because they keep their valuable livestock where they are meant to be, and can be expensive and time-consuming to fix.
“I can go out and fix a stretch of fence and within a few days, they’ll have destroyed it again,” Eisenbraun said.
Fence damage and some raids on his winter feed supply pushed Eisenbraun to start speaking with wildlife damage control specialists within GFP.
There are several things GFP can do to directly help ranchers such as Eisenbraun.
The department, through its wildlife damage program, will help pay for a strong cable to be strung across the top of a fence, which will help prevent elk from knocking the fence over.
To protect stored hay, GFP staff will provide exclusionary panels and help build a protected stack yard. To divert elk away from pastures and hay fields, GFP sometimes will pay up to $6,000 worth of food plots aimed at reducing damage to alfalfa and other crops.
“We want to be a good partner to these landowners,” said Keith Fisk, wildlife damage program administrator.
In the United States, wildlife is publicly owned. Private landowners don’t have any more rights to the wildlife on their property than anyone else. Landowners can control access to their land, but they cannot stop wild animals from leaving their land, they cannot sell wildlife and they cannot just shoot problem wildlife without getting permission from the agency that manages it.
Because 85% of South Dakota land area is privately owned, and because most of the state’s wildlife lives on private land, GFP has to work closely with landowners, especially when wild animals are damaging someone’s livelihood, Fisk said.
In 2019, GFP spent just shy of $300,000 working with farmers and ranchers to reduce and prevent elk damage to their property, up from slightly more than $200,000 spent in 2018.
In all, GFP spent a little more than $3.5 million on wildlife damage control in 2019, including nearly $1 million spent on deer damage complaints alone. Nearly all of the money the department spent on wildlife damage control comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.
“We want to work with landowners,” Fisk said. “There’s a ton of value to having those critters on the landscape.”
Eisenbraun hasn’t taken advantage of wildlife damage assistance just yet. For now, he’s hoping a new hunting unit will help when the elk return to his land next fall.
About Nick Lowrey
Nick Lowrey, based in Pierre, S.D., is an investigative staff reporter for South Dakota News Watch. A South Dakotan for more than 20 years, he is a former editor of the Pierre Capital Journal.