In response to heavy crop damage, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has ordered a special month-long elk hunting season for five counties in the southwestern part of the state.
The special depredation hunt will run for the entire month of July and allow landowners to reduce elk numbers as they feed on corn crops and cause extensive damage through wallowing and trampling, the agency said in a statement.
“Game and Parks staff has worked with landowners in this area for several years to lower elk herds to an acceptable level in cropland areas,” the statement reads. “Several small elk herds inhabit crop fields through harvest, then disperse randomly, making it difficult for hunters to take elk during the late general season.”
The agency will make the unlimited either-sex elk tags available to landowners, resident, and non-resident hunters in select parts of five Nebraska counties with lots of elk damage and plenty of landowner tolerance for hunting problem elk. While anyone can purchase a tag, you must either own 80-plus acres within the depredation zone or obtain permission from a large landowner to participate in the special hunt. The unlimited tags will cost $20 for general residents, $40 for general nonresidents, $5 for resident landowners, and $10 for nonresident landowners.
It’s a rare opportunity for nonresidents lucky enough to obtain landowner permission, as nonresident elk hunting is prohibited during the state’s regular season. Non-landowning residents who get permission will need to thank their lucky stars as well, since even resident elk tags are hard to come by in Nebraska. The private-land-only nature of this opportunity is leaving some resident DIY hunters frustrated with what they say feels like a privatization of the state’s resources. With that said, the extra opportunity to fill the freezer and help landowners is exciting for many.
“Landowners have been very open to hunters through all hunting seasons, and one of the requirements for us to implement one of these depredation seasons is that there has to be reasonable access to have one of them,” Dusty Schelbitzki, Depredation Program Manager for Nebraska Game and Parks told MeatEater. “This is one thing that our hunters and our landowners asked for, especially our hunters, because they wanted to be part of the solution to some of these damage problems.”
The current depredation order, which was authorized by an act of the Nebraska legislature during a recent legislative session, is only effective for the month of July during the 2022 season, according to Schelbitzki.
“We’re doing this on an as-needed basis to help out a situation,” he said. “There are no plans to have the season every year, have it in multiple areas, or anything like that. This is just a response option we can use to help with a problem area.”
That said, he didn’t rule out the possibility of more depredation hunts occurring sometime in the future if circumstances permit.
“It could be used in other parts [of the state] if that area warrants it and certain conditions are met,” he said. “We have the ability to implement one if one’s needed.”
Some hunters and ranchers in Nebraska have collided in recent years, particularly in 2019, when a rancher near Bridgeport was awarded coveted permits for up to 50 problem elk by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. For reference, Nebraska Game and Parks only awarded 374 elk tags to licensed Nebraska hunters that same year.
According to the Nebraska-based Daily Scoop, hunters were outraged by that decision, which they say the commission made at the behest of Sen. Steve Erdman as he lobbied on behalf of the Bridgeport rancher. The rancher says he sustained more $100,000 in damages from a herd of elk about 100 members strong.
Schelbitzki said the damage resident elk herds can do to cornfields in southwest Nebraska is substantial.
“They show up during the growing season, once the corn gets maybe three to five feet tall, and they kind of use it as a refuge,” he said. “They have everything they need there. They utilize the pivots as a water source—for wallows, for drinking, and to cool themselves—and they will stay there until that corn is basically harvested.”
The animal’s hefty size and the prolonged amount of time elk herds tend to spend in cornfields makes the resulting damage intolerable for local farmers, he said.
“When you get something as big as an elk spending that much time in a crop field, they eat the crops, they make their wallows in there,” he said. “Once the corn starts drying out, they can trample it pretty extensively. They make trails. It’s more damage than you can really imagine.”
MeatEater crew member Jordan Budd grew up hunting in northwest Nebraska, where she still owns a ranch today. She said elk started showing up on her family land about a decade ago.
“In the last five years, it’s really blown up,” Budd said. “When Steve and them were out there, there was a herd of about fifty that ran through right in front of us, which I had never seen before that day. There’s starting to be more of a resident population. They’re not just swinging in and out.”
Elk were extirpated from the Great Plains during the market hunting frenzy of the mid to late 1800s, and by 1880, the once abundant animals were completely gone from the Cornhusker State. That started to change around 1958 when elk slowly began to trickle back into western Nebraska. That trend was only bolstered by reintroduction efforts in bordering Wyoming, and by 2007, Nebraska’s statewide elk numbers were estimated at well over 1,000 animals. Today, Nebraska game officials estimate a total population of some 3,000 elk.
While Budd hasn’t seen any agricultural damage on her northwest Nebraska ranch, she says the critters are causing problems in her neighbor’s corn.
“As far as getting into our personal crops, I haven’t seen it. But there’s some neighboring ground that has a lot of farm fields, and they say the elk are just really raising hell with their corn,” she said. “They really do basically live in the stuff.”
She said she prefers the idea of landowners harvesting problem elk on their own property to the state agency performing its own in-house depredation measures.
“As far as a ranch owner’s perspective, I think that it’s a good thing that they’re at least giving the landowners a chance to do it themselves,” she said. “Rather than having Game and Parks go in there and do it for them.”
For Schelbitzki, Nebraska’s newly implemented summer depredation hunt represents a potential solution to the increasingly pronounced conflicts between large landowners and Nebraska’s growing elk herds. He says the hunt should provide enough opportunity to keep hunters happy while easing the depredation pains of local farmers.
“The goal of this hunt is to utilize our hunters to help fix some of these damage issues,” he said. “We want to reduce that damage to a tolerable level for the landowners in these areas without affecting our core, main elk populations.”
Feature image via John Hafner.