|Allowing hunters to take bull elk that pose a public safety risk along a stretch of Highway 89 in Sanpete County is among actions that have been approved to deal with a problem elk herd in the area.
The actions were recommended by a working group that includes sportsmen, landowners, Farm Bureau officials and a Division of Wildlife Resources official. "Groups of bull elk have been migrating into lower elevation areas in Sanpete County for the last five or six years, resulting in increased agricultural depredation and risk to public safety on highways in the area," says Steve Flinders, Central Region wildlife manager for the Division of Wildlife Resources.
Flinders says the portion of the Manti wildlife management unit located east of Highway 89 is home to more than 10,300 elk. Bull elk numbers in this unit have steadily increased under current spike bull management practices, growing from 294 bulls in 1992, to 927 counted from the air in 2001.
Starting in about 1998, bull elk that typically wintered on or around the White Hill Wildlife Management Area (WMA), between Spring City and Ephraim, began crossing Highway 89. During the winter of 1999, five bulls were struck by vehicles on the highway. That winter a landowner on the west side of the highway began feeding them, to prevent their daily crossing and to keep them from raiding his stored hay. As many as 53 bulls were present during the feeding.
In November 2000, two more bulls were struck by vehicles. Early attempts to herd these bulls back to the mountain by vehicle, and even by helicopter, were unsuccessful. A technician was hired by the Division of Wildlife Resources to help herd these bulls toward the White Hill WMA, located east of Highway 89. "Even with these efforts, bull elk numbers have almost doubled to more than 100 around this area of concern," Flinders says. "Since Division personnel hazed and herded bulls from areas west of Highway 89 on a daily basis, vehicle collisions were reduced but bull elk became scattered around the valley, with some making it as far as Levan."
In January 2001, DWR personnel brought this issue to the Central Region Advisory Council (RAC) (this advisory council is a regional group of individuals representing diverse wildlife management interests. The council forwards their regional recommendations to the Utah Wildlife Board, which makes the final decisions concerning wildlife management policy in Utah.)
After the January meeting, it was recommended that a meeting conducted by the Central RAC chairman be held in Sanpete County, to address these issues with the local community. Many topics were presented and discussed, such as elk herd population data, long-term feeding and disease issues, and effectiveness of fencing and estimation of fencing cost. Public comment was gathered and 10 volunteers from this public meeting formed a working group to develop specific recommendations for the Central RAC.
In addition to Flinders, the working group consists of landowners, sportsmen and representatives from the Farm Bureau. "After it was formed, the group met each month and discussed in depth various management tools, such as depredation hunts, restructuring the annual limited entry hunts on the unit to exert more harvest of this group of bulls, an extended archery season in the valley, feeding possibilities, habitat enhancement, fencing issues and many other management tool options," Flinders says.
In April, the Utah Wildlife Board passed a motion to hold depredation hunts to help with this problem elk herd. Thirty permits were reserved from the total limited entry "any bull" permits on the Manti portion of the unit to be used to address problem bulls in Sanpete, Carbon and Emery counties.
"These depredation hunts will be held as needed and will also be structured with herding efforts to minimize the number of elk that may have to be killed," Flinders says. "It's hoped that these actions will achieve the desired behavioral response of having the elk winter on public land east of Highway 89. Depredation hunts for these bull elk will follow the Wildlife Board's recently approved administrative rule concerning depredation hunts for trophy elk, deer and antelope."
Flinders says a possible depredation hunt scenario could include an initial effort of intense herding methods. After the size of the groups of bulls has been reduced, and if remaining groups of bulls show reluctancy to respond, alternate hunters could be selected from the Manti limited entry list, and hunts according to rule and policy would be initiated. After a 5-day hunt, herding efforts would continue for another 10 days. This type of process could be repeated as needed until 25 bulls were harvested, or the problem was resolved. If one of the selected hunters harvests a trophy animal, they would forfeit any bull elk bonus points they had accumulated toward the bull elk drawing and would incur a 5-year waiting period for the limited entry elk drawing.
"Fencing the Highway 89 corridor to prevent the crossing of big game remains a highly debatable topic because of the high number of side-roads, enormous cost associated with a project of this magnitude, and the resulting isolation of the property to the east, between the fence and the mountain," Flinders says. "Many landowners feel their property would experience higher rates of depredation than before and suggest any fence be constructed further east, on the foothills at the U.S. Forest Service boundary."
Feeding options in the plan mention that bulls in Sanpete County that remain after January 31, or after the harvest of 25 bulls, could possibly be fed in a secure and secluded location, to lessen public safety risks associated with daily highway crossing and crop depredation. "If this need arises, an emergency feeding plan will be drafted by the DWR," Flinders says. "No long-term feeding of elk, especially bulls, is planned in Sanpete County. This is in concert with the Division's Emergency Feeding Policy."
The working group will continue to explore other management options and strategies during the current action plan, to resolve the elk/human conflicts in the Sanpete County area.
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