Game Partners

States Bring Farmers, Hunters Together to Reduce Wildlife Damage

Mark Schwoch (Progressive Farmer photo by Harlen Persinger)

Mark Schwoch, who produces corn, soybeans, alfalfa and wheat on acreage in three counties north of Madison, Wisconsin, said there has never been a time in his 36-year farming career that he hasn't had trouble with white-tailed deer. His home farm is in Columbia County, where, he remarked, "We've got so much lowland and woodland that it's perfect habitat for deer. In our area, we are never going to eradicate them, because this is not exclusively an agriculture area."

Most of his crop damage is confined to corn and soybeans. One year, deer completely destroyed 11 acres of corn, costing him about $4,000.

This is a story familiar to many farmers around the country, particularly those who live in regions not exclusively devoted to agriculture.

"A lot more people are owning land for recreational purposes like hunting," explained wildlife damage biologist Bradley Koele. He runs Wisconsin's Wildlife Damage Abatement and Claims Program (WDACP) through the state's Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Wildlife Management. When producers' neighbors maintain their land in a natural state, it attracts high deer numbers.

HARVEST NOT ENOUGH

"Deer populations are growing," Koele said, "and we can't harvest enough deer to keep up with population goals."

Most states offer programs that allow farmers to shoot animals causing crop or livestock depredation outside of normal hunting seasons. Some states also have programs that give growers an avenue to recover the value of their losses.

In Wisconsin, producers can make claims or obtain kill permits for deer, bear, geese, turkey, elk, cougar and Sandhill cranes. Koele said 90 to 95% of wildlife depredations involve corn and soybeans. Bears will often get into corn during the milk stage.

In 2014, the state had $1.15 million in appraised losses on 291 farms and paid out $850,000 in compensation to farmers. The previous year, when soybean prices were higher, reported agricultural damages on which producers filed claims amounted to $2.1 million.

Producers who experience crop depredation by wildlife can contact their county's wildlife damage technician, who will generally visit the property to confirm crop damage is the result of wildlife.

Damage has to meet or exceed $1,000 to warrant a shooting permit outside normal hunting season, and the state only allows the shooting permit if there isn't a better alternative. Producers can only receive compensation for damage if they provide public hunting access on their land. Under state regulations, two hunters can occupy 40 acres of land at any given time.

Schwoch has been participating in WDACP for many years and said he's definitely seen deer depredation go down as a result of allowing hunting, both in and off season on his farmland. "The extra income to cover damage has been nice, too," he added.

FARMERS AND HUNTERS WIN

Koele sees the program as a win-win for farmers and hunters. He said WDACP results in about 200,000 to 250,000 acres of private land open to hunting, and hunters can find farmer landowners with kill permits via the state's department of natural resources web site. In recent years, Koele said as many as 1,500 hunters have participated in the program.

"The results are pretty mixed," he admitted. "It depends on surrounding land uses. Some producers enroll in the program every year."

That's certainly the case in Connecticut, where wildlife biologist Andrew LaBonte, with the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said most hunters renew participation in the Deer Crop Damage Permit Program (DEEP) annually.

While Connecticut doesn't offer compensation for damages, DEEP is fairly liberal in issuing kill permits outside of normal hunting season. The damage program runs Jan. 1 through Oct. 31 each year.

"You're going to have damage from deer if you farm in Connecticut," LaBonte remarked. It's so much of a given that DEEP managers don't even go out to producers' properties to verify damage. If a bona fide farmer applies for a permit, he or she will generally receive one. Most reported damage occurs on vegetable farms, in apple orchards and on Christmas tree farms.

LaBonte said there are two main reasons deer are such an issue for Connecticut farmers. First, the state is chopped up with private property with multiple uses, so there are no vast areas devoted exclusively to agriculture. Second, the state lacks any significant population of natural predators for deer. There are no bears, only coyotes.

In 2015, Connecticut had 264 active crop-damage permit holders. Those permit holders and the hunters they invite onto their land generally take out the most deer in August through October. In 2014, LaBonte said a single hunter in western Connecticut killed 40 to 50 deer using DEEP. That one hunter's impact accounted for nearly 6% of the total damage permit harvest in 2014 of 812.

That's hardly a drop in the bucket, however, compared to the 11,000 to 13,000 deer harvested during regular fall hunting season. But, there's really not much else producers can do to address wildlife depredations, LaBonte said, "short of putting up an 8-foot-tall fence all around your crops." That isn't practical for large commercial farms or orchards, and even for smaller-scale vegetable producers, for example, a fence requires constant monitoring to make sure deer aren't crawling under it and there are no breaks.

Hunting remains critical to reducing wildlife depredation. And for Schwoch, opening his land to hunters has proved helpful. "I've met some very good people who have come hunting here and stayed with me year after year," he said.

Koele also likes the fact that most hunters donate meat they can't use themselves to local food pantries. "It's a win-win," he said, "for both farmers and hunters."

To learn about damage control permits in your area, contact your appropriate state agency, which you can locate through www.wheretohunt.org