In response to heavy crop damage, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission ordered a special month-long moose hunting season for five counties in the southwestern part of the state.
The special depredation hunt will run throughout the month of July and allow landowners to reduce elk numbers as they feed on corn crops and cause extensive damage by wallowing and trampling, the agency said in a statement.
“Game and Parks staff have worked with landowners in this area for several years to reduce elk herds to an acceptable level in growing areas,” the statement read. “Several small herds of elk inhabit farm fields during harvest, then randomly disperse, making it difficult for hunters to take elk during the general tail end of the season.”
The agency will make unlimited elk tags of either sex available to landowners, resident and nonresident hunters in select portions of five Nebraska counties with high elk damage and high tolerance by landowners for hunting problem elk. While anyone can purchase a tag, she must own more than 80 acres within the depredation zone or obtain permission from a large landowner to participate in the special hunt. Unlimited tags will cost $20 for general residents, $40 for general non-residents, $5 for resident homeowners, and $10 for non-resident homeowners.
It’s a rare opportunity for non-residents lucky enough to get a landlord’s permit, as non-resident elk hunting is prohibited during the state’s regular season. Landless residents who get the permit will also have to thank their lucky stars, as even resident moose 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 state resources. With that said, the added opportunity to fill the freezer and help homeowners is exciting for many.
“Landowners have been very open to hunters during every hunting season, and one of the requirements for us to implement one of these predation seasons is that there has to be reasonable access to have one,” Dusty Schelbitzki, Manager of the Nebraska Predation Program. Game and Parks told MeatEater. “This is something 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 issues.”
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 are doing this as needed to help in 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 one response option we can use to help with a problem area.”
That said, he didn’t rule out the possibility of more predation hunts happening in the future if circumstances allow.
“Could be used elsewhere [of the state] if that area deserves it and certain conditions are met,” he said. “We have the ability to deploy one if needed.”
Some hunters and ranchers in Nebraska have clashed in recent years, particularly in 2019, when the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission awarded a rancher near Bridgeport coveted permits for up to 50 troublesome elk. For reference, Nebraska Game and Parks only awarded 374 moose tags to licensed Nebraska hunters that same year.
According to the Nebraska base daily scoopHunters were outraged by that decision, which they say the commission made at the urging of Sen. Steve Erdman while he was lobbying on behalf of the Bridgeport rancher. The rancher says he suffered more than $100,000 in damage from an elk herd of about 100 members.
Schelbitzki said the damage resident elk herds can cause to cornfields in southwestern Nebraska is considerable.
“They show up during the growing season, once the corn is three to five feet tall, and use it for shelter,” he said. “They have everything they need there. They use the pivots as a water source, to wallow in, drink and cool off, and they will stay there until basically the corn is harvested.”
The large size of the animal and the prolonged amount of time elk herds typically spend in cornfields make the resulting damage intolerable to local farmers, he said.
“When you get something as big as a moose that spends so much time in a crop field, they eat the crops, they wallow in there,” he said. “Once the corn starts to dry out, they can stomp on it quite a bit. They make trails. It’s more damage than you can really imagine.”
MeatEater crew member Jordan Budd grew up hunting in northwestern Nebraska, where she still owns a ranch today. She said moose started showing up on her family’s land about a decade ago.
“In the last five years, it’s really exploded,” Budd said. “When Steve and them were there, there was a pack of about fifty running right in front of us, which he had never seen before that day. There begins to be more resident population. They don’t just swing in and out.”
Moose were extirpated from the Great Plains during the market hunting frenzy of the mid- to late 19th century, and by 1880, the once-abundant animals had completely disappeared from the Cornhusker State. That began to change around 1958 when moose began to slowly return to western Nebraska. That trend was only reinforced by reintroduction efforts on the Wyoming border, and by 2007, moose numbers in the entire state of Nebraska were estimated at more than 1,000 animals. Today, Nebraska game officials estimate a total population of about 3,000 moose.
While Budd hasn’t seen any agricultural damage on his northwest Nebraska ranch, he says the critters are causing problems on his neighbor’s corn.
“As for getting into our personal crops, I haven’t seen it. But there is a neighboring piece of land that has a lot of farmland, and they say the moose are really making hell with their corn,” he said. “They really basically live in things.”
He said he prefers the idea of landowners harvesting problem elk on their property than the state agency carrying out its own internal depredation measures.
“As far as a ranch owner’s perspective, I think it’s a good thing that they at least give owners a chance to do it themselves,” he said. “Instead of Game and Parks going in there and doing it for them.”
For Schelbitzki, Nebraska’s recently implemented summer predation hunt represents a possible solution to the escalating conflicts between large landowners and Nebraska’s growing elk herds. He says hunting should provide enough opportunities to keep hunters happy and ease the predation pains of local farmers.
“The goal of this hunt is to use our hunters to help fix some of these damage issues,” he said. “We want to reduce that damage to a level tolerable for landowners in these areas without affecting our core elk populations.”
Featured image via John Hafner.