Gov't starting to compensate farmers for losses to deer

Damage done to hayfields by a growing number of wild deer has Interior ranchers seeking compensation from the government.

Jeff Morgan, the Ministry of Environment's area manager of the agricultural zone wildlife program, said a joint provincial-federal compensation program is now paying Kamloops-area ranchers for crop losses.

The program, created in 2008, has mostly been sought out by farmers in the Kootenay and Peace River areas, where agricultural losses to elk herds have long been a problem.

In the Kamloops region, however, growing herds of mule and whitetail deer are the culprits, causing extensive localized damage to alfalfa fields.

Ranches along the Fraser River are among the hardest hit, Morgan said, but farmers in Westwold, the Douglas Lake area and across the region are also complaining of increasingly significant losses.

Studies have shown deer can cost farmers 30 to 50 per cent of a hayfield's production.

Morgan said ranchers can seek compensation from the program if damages caused by wildlife exceed $1,000, or if more than 10 per cent of a field is visibly affected by wild foraging.

Once a claim is made, government assessors look at the damage and if it meets the criteria, the application is processed and up to 80 per cent of the loss can be paid out.

The problem is not yet dire in the Interior, but the increasing number of complaints from ranchers about agricultural losses has caught the ear of wildlife managers.

Morgan said the government is now in the process of counting deer in the hardest-hit areas. Depending on the results, it's possible the government will look at remedial efforts such as increasing hunting opportunities for deer in the coming years.

"We're trying to assess populations to understand what levels of damage are happening in (this) region," he said.

"We are increasingly aware there are problems growing in our area. Not all areas are experiencing problems but a lot of areas are. It's highly variable."

Tom Dey owns roughly 200 acres of hay-producing pasture just inside City limits in Westsyde. He has definitely seen more deer coming to his fields over the years, to the point it's not uncommon now to see up to 100 deer in the fields.

And they eat well, he said, taking as much as 30 per cent of his alfalfa crops every season.

Regardless, Dey said he doesn't begrudge the deer their feed, as his land was prime mule deer range long before it grew hay for cattle. He doesn't allow hunting on the fields and enjoys watching the animals slip into the fields late in the day.

"There is a lot more of them. But they have to have a place where they can enjoy life," he said. "In my case, it's not a problem to me because I don't have cattle. Yes, I'm losing money (to the deer) but you have to put back what you take out. You have to work with nature."

But Dey said if deer numbers keep growing and the animals take even more hay than they already do, he might have to seek compensation as well.

"I will wait a year or two and see. If the impact starts to really hurt, I might look at something like that."

Morgan said the compensation program was expanded this year to cover losses to all hay cuts in a season. Typically, ranchers get two or three cuts from a field every summer.

Deer do much of the damage by grazing on young alfalfa as it starts to grow, he said. The green shoots are particularly attractive.

"They get on the plants just as they start to bud out in the spring," he said. "(Deer) are coming down on the winter ranges and the first places that green up are those agricultural ranges."

Wildlife biologist Doug Jury said several factors are behind the growth of deer herds, including several successive mild winters. Winter is the largest natural control on deer numbers.

Jury said the ministry has no idea how much the Interior herd has grown, as there are no past studies to compare against. His department is planning a series of studies in the coming months to help determine baseline population numbers.

"We're getting lots of reports from people there are more deer," he said.

The provincial government has paid $1.1 million to B.C. farmers for crop losses under the compensation program.

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