EDMONTON — Alberta has discouraging words for ranchers about a proposal to round up and kill thousands of wild elk that live on military base rangeland, but jump fences to eat and trample private crops.
Ranchers and community leaders say the growing elk herd at CFB Suffield in the province’s southeast has been out of control for years and hunting alone will not reduce it to a manageable size.
Fed up with lack of action, a group of people submitted a draft proposal to the province in July that calls for humanely capturing about 1,500 elk each year, moving the animals to an elk farm and slaughtering them over time at a provincially approved abattoir.
The meat would be donated to food banks.
Environment Minister Kyle Fawcett said he knows people are concerned about the herd, but the Suffield elk proposal is not the way to go.
“Right now it isn’t what we are looking at. We think it can be managed in a different way,” he said. “We want to manage this species through a longer-term strategy with hunting licences.”
Fawcett said the government is concerned about the cost of the proposal, which was put together by the owner of the abattoir in consultation with ranchers, community leaders and the Medicine Hat Food Bank.
He suggested it would also be challenging to get the federal government to approve a plan that would involve access to a military base with security concerns.
“One of the problematic factors to this issue is that we are dealing with a federal agency. And there are some very strict rules about access to this particular piece of land.”
The Suffield elk were brought to the base in 1997 and 1998 from Elk Island National Park near Edmonton to introduce grazing animals to the region.
Over time the 200 elk multiplied to between 6,000 and 8,000 animals. Along with damage to crops, some ranchers are worried the elk could spread animal maladies such as tuberculosis and brucellosis to cattle.
To deal with the burgeoning population, the province started issuing hunting licences a few years ago.
In 2012, the Alberta government gave out 200 hunting tags for female elk. Last year the number increased to 300. This year, hunters can shoot up to 600 female elk.
People in the area say the problem with Alberta’s plan is that more elk are born each year than are being hunted. Until more are killed than are being born, the size of the herd will continue to grow.
Perry Dearing of Deerview Meats, who wrote the draft proposal, said that plan would reduce the herd over four or five years to a sustainable size.
“They don’t want to eliminate the elk. They just want to bring it down to a healthy, viable manageable number,” Dearing said. “Once they get the animals down to 2,000 head, the hunting program should be able to sustain a healthy herd.”
Fawcett said the government will consider issuing more hunting tags for female elk and extending the hunting season if the province’s strategy doesn’t get the job done.
Lt.-Col. Sean Hackett, commander of CFB Suffield, has said the elk problem is complex because it involves managing wildlife that is under Alberta jurisdiction, but moves back and forth from a federal base onto private land.
Hackett said Alberta officials have to come up with an understanding of how many elk can be sensibly and sustainably harvested to reduce the herd to a more comfortable size.
Some ranchers, including Jeff Lewandoski, are just as frustrated with the federal government over the elk herd.
Lewandoski wrote a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on June 27 to ask for Ottawa’s help. The letter includes an invitation for Harper to come to the area and shoot a trophy elk.
Lewandoski said he received a reply from a staff member in Harper’s office in July advising him that he should bring the issue up with the Alberta government. The reply also noted that someone from the Department of National Defence would be in touch.
Lewandoski said no one has been.
“They keep passing the buck, saying it is a provincial problem” he said. “But the heart of the problem stems on federally controlled land, and until we get that herd reduced inside the base, this problem will never go away.”