We all love to see wildlife, unless it’s in the grill of our vehicles. A good healthy wildlife population means that we have a solid ecosystem at work. Conservation efforts in most regions of the country have been highly successful, restoring populations of many species. And ranchers have been a large component in many wildlife conservation projects, offering improved habitat and water options.
In some cases, I would have to think that our obsession to the conservation of wildlife may have gone too far. I suppose it’s the old pendulum theory; if it swings too far to the left, it’s going to swing too far to the right. Most folks would agree that we need balance when it comes to natural resource use.
We have done perhaps too good of a job conserving our wildlife; our deer, elk and wild horse populations have exploded through our conservation efforts. When it comes to overpopulation, I see all these being equal because they use the same resources as the cattle industry, namely grass. And there just isn’t enough to go around to support all of these populations.
Most environmental groups agree that they would prefer to see the cattle go rather than the deer, elk or horses. But these groups might be wiser to look to the ranching community for help in maintaining healthy wildlife populations, because ranchers’ track records are pretty good. However, the environmental agenda is simply to get rid of cattle, not necessarily save species.
When it comes to deer, they have simply become a pest, especially in the Midwest and East. Deer populations all around the country are in very healthy condition. We don’t see it as much in mule deer country, but when you start talking about whitetail deer, we’re overrun with them.
Research shows that in the 1900s, we had a whitetail deer population of around 500,000 head. Today, that population is estimated to be 25 million head. The population has become so large that they are causing problems, from eating everything in sight to causing car accidents and deaths. Researchers found deer populations can reach as high as 40 head of deer per square mile in rural areas and they have found over 100 head per square mile near many eastern urban areas. Something is out of balance here and I might call it “over conservation.”
And quite honestly, the elk populations in the West have become very large too. So large, in fact, that landowners are starting to sue the wildlife agencies to help manage elk populations. One case was filed in Washington last week where 1,000 head of elk were grazing on a ranch of 1,100 acres, causing the rancher $9,000 in lost use and damage to her pastures.
Another group of ranchers in southern Idaho has complained to the state that herds of 5,000-6,000 elk that have moved into their area are causing problems. They assume the elk have migrated their way because of the large forest fires in recent years. The ranchers feel the only cure will be through legislation and calculated their cost of having those elk consume winter pasture and damages at $432,000.
Every one of these ranchers is working with the wildlife agencies to find solutions to the elk situation. They are all good with having elk on their ranches, but not 10 times what the resource can handle. And they have a right to protect their private property.
Now throw in our social views of wild horses, which is not an indigenous species. We’ve got a horse population that is double what the resources can handle and we have a plan on how to handle it. The problem is that no one has the heart to do the right things to manage them. There is no hunting season and there are no natural predators to thin the herd out.
The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) thinks the way to control these populations is through sterilization, and maybe they are right. They’ve been working with a drug called PZP (porcine zona pellucida) that can be administered with a dart gun and will shut down a mare’s reproductive system for about three years.
Wildlife management has become a huge issue across the country. HSUS may have a good idea with their contraceptive drugs. But that approach may work over a 20-year period. The wolves in the Northwest have done a good job decimating elk and deer herds, along with livestock. Perhaps we need to introduce wolves in some of the eastern states to fix the deer problem. Maybe a few wild hogs could help too. But the point is, we need to deal with all this wildlife. We all like wildlife, but we need to utilize it too. — PETE CROW