PA: Elk crop-damage policy questioned

Benezette, Pa. – At a time when the value of Pennsylvania‘s elk
herd is at an all-time high, some are questioning the Game
Commission’s crop-damage policy.

Elk tourism has been growing in recent years and exploded last year
when the $13 million Elk Country Visitor Center opened near here.
More than 10,000 people visited the public-private facility over a
recent three-day period.

More than 18,000 hunters applied for a chance at being selected for
one of the 56 elk licenses drawn in September. The state’s
elk-hunting season annually occurs the first week of
November.

The value of a single bull license far exceeds the $25 that lucky
resident lottery winners are asked to pay for it. During its
national convention last winter, Safari Club International
auctioned off one special bull elk permit for $29,000.

By law, 80 percent of the bid was returned back to the Game
Commission for use in improving elk habitat, while the conservation
group holding the auction retained 20 percent.

To most hunters and others flocking to Pennsylvania’s elk range,
elk are majestic animals – especially the bulls. However, for
farmers living in the state’s elk country, these creatures create a
nuisance and cause severe crop damage.

In northcentral Pennsylvania, elk are being shot by farmers on a
regular basis. Title 34, also known as the state’s Game Code, gives
any farmer the right to kill animals causing damage to their
crops.

Elk guide Phil Burkhouse, of Emporium, is unhappy with the current
state of affairs.

“I am really at odds with the Game Commission on their current elk
program,” he said. “In the past, they have fenced entire farms to
keep the elk out and now they will do nothing.

“Their response to farmers requesting help with elk damage is,
‘Just shoot them.'”

How many elk are actually being killed by farmers? Official Game
Commission figures for the 10-year period, from 2001 to 2010, list
75 elk killed for crop damage, including 17 shot in 2002, 13 in
2009, and 11 in 2003.

Burkhouse questioned whether these numbers tell the entire story.
Crop-damage kills are likely under-reported, he claimed.

According to Dennis Dusza, the Game Commission’s northcentral
supervisor, Cameron County wildlife conservation officer Wayne Hunt
handled two crop-damage-killed elk in August.

A third was found partially decomposed close to the area where crop
damage has been previously reported.

Based on conversations with local farmers, Burkhouse is certain
that the number of recent crop damage kills in the area is more
likely six or eight elk.

For a time, the Game Commission had supplied fencing for farmers
subjected to severe elk damage. According to Game Commission press
secretary Jerry Feaser, this policy ended in 2005 – a victim of
budget cuts.

“The agency felt that it was much better to put our limited
resources into habitat acquisitions and improvements that help to
keep the elk on public land,” Feaser explained.

“We’ve partnered with the Department of Conservation and Natural
Resources, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and others. Habitat
improvements benefit many species, while fencing benefits one
farmer.”

Rawley Cogan, former Game Commission elk biologist and current
president of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, was surprised to
learn of the fencing program’s termination.

“I didn’t know that the fencing program had been cut. I was
involved with that program when I worked for the Game Commission,
and I thought that it was an extremely effective and efficient
solution,” he said.

“Not only did it prevent crop damage from elk, but also deer and
bears.”

The farmers shooting elk, at least for the most part, seem to be
following the law and within their rights. Nevertheless, Burkhouse
doubts whether this is the best use of the resource.

“The elk are worth a lot. If I were to shoot a trophy-class bull
illegally, the fine plus restitution would be about $10,000,” he
said. “They [Game Commission] are making money off of the elk
through fines and license sales. Why can’t they put some of it back
into fencing?”

Farmers who received commission fencing prior to 2005 are generally
happy with the results.

Cameron County farmer Bill Lyon owns 265 acres along Route 120 west
of Emporium, in the heart of elk range. He claimed that he had
endured a lot of damage from elk.

“The Game Commission put fences around us about 20 years ago – I’ve
had no trouble since,” Lyon said.

Elk are awfully destructive, and as far as I’m concerned, they
ain’t no good for nothin’,” he said. “I think that I’ve shot about
20 elk for crop damage over the years.

“It didn’t take them too long to put up a fence after I started
shooting elk,” Lyon added. “The Game Commission never gave me any
trouble over it, either. They did ask why I only shot bulls, and I
told them that was what was in my fields.”

Farmer Jeff Reed shared a similar experience. “I had elk damage and
they wouldn’t do anything. I shot 12 elk in 2002, and in 2003, they
fenced in my farm,” he said. “They didn’t seem to like it when I
shot the bulls.”

Farmer Jim Zofchg is more tolerant of elk, but echoes the same
concerns.

“About eight years ago, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the
Game Commission fenced in my farm with a high-tensile electric
fence,” he said. “They did an excellent job.

But Zofchg has problem with the 6-foot-wide cattle guard – elk jump
it and get into his fields. He estimates that it would take about
$1,500 to replace it, but the Game Commission told him it can’t
come up with the money.

“They told me that if the elk cause problems, just shoot them,” he
said. “But I don’t want to shoot the elk; I just want to keep them
out of my corn and away from my apple trees.”

John Mason raises replacement dairy heifers and grows corn on 300
acres between Emporium and Driftwood. “I have a lot of damage and
we shot one elk in May or June, but it seems like it is useless –
another one just takes its place,” he said.

“I feel that the Game Commission doesn’t care about landowners. If
we farmers are supposed to feed the elk, then we should be
reimbursed for crop damages.”

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