Cost of deer depredation

NORTHVILLE, S.D. -- Dick and Janell Meyer, who farm in the Northville, S.D., area, want a state law that says if a wild animal -- deer -- is destroying their property they can shoot it. State officials say that's impractical.

Dick and Janelle Meyer
Dick and Janell Meyer of Northville, S.D., think state laws should be changed to require compensation for farmers and ranchers who are hit by unmanageable numbers of deer. (Mikkel Pates, Agweek)

NORTHVILLE, S.D. -- Dick and Janell Meyer, who farm in the Northville, S.D., area, want a state law that says if a wild animal -- deer -- is destroying their property they can shoot it. State officials say that's impractical.

"It's hard to believe that you live in America and you're not allowed to defend your property against a wild animal -- muskrat, prairie dog or deer," Dick Meyer says. "Your only recourse is to call the state Game, Fish and Parks and wait your turn."

Meyer paid $1,500 in fines and penalties for "wonton waste" of a deer on his property in the winter of 2010 to 2011. The South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department says he declined to use panel protection that officials offered for his feedlot, saying it wouldn't work on his place.

He thinks the state of South Dakota should pay farmers for damage from deer depredation, just like the government pays for any other natural disaster.

"The state claim ownership over these wildlife, but if our cows got out, people would expect to be compensated," Dick says.


The Meyers estimate the losses to their farm-ranch were about $10,000 in lost feed and dead calves. "I didn't even figure anything for my loss of time, for trying to keep them out of my yard," he says.

The energy effects

The Meyer family has been in South Dakota for eight decades. Dick's grandfather started out in the Armour, S.D., area in the 1930s and moved to Holabird, S.D. In the 1940s, he moved to Chelsea, S.D., to work as a hired man, and eventually rented a farm west of Northville, S.D.

Dick was born in 1957 and was the youngest of four children. He and Janell rode the school bus together and were high school sweethearts at Northwestern High School in Mellette, S.D. He graduated in 1975, and immediately started farming with his father. He married Janell in 1977 and in 1989, they bought a farm from her great uncle. "We didn't have to borrow a lot of money, so we didn't get caught up in the 23 percent interest deal," he says.

Initially, the Meyers had a fully diversified farm -- crops, cattle, chickens and pigs. "We used to do it all, but the children grew up and moved away. You can't do all of this by yourself," Janell says. Hogs were truly a mortgage lifter in the days when corn was $1.50 per bushel and hogs sometimes hit 50 cents a pound. They had pigs until the mid-1990s.

At one time, the Meyers farmed 2,500 acres, in addition to running 100 beef cows. "When the ethanol deal came in, we lost a lot of rental acres, so we increased the cow herd," Dick says.

"We knew what we could pay for land," Dick says. "We regrouped, bought some pastureland up in the Long Lake, S.D., area, about 75 miles away. That was one of the best things we've done." A wind development company paid them for future development rights, but hasn't extended a field there yet.

They had 300 cows in the cow-calf operation. They had 600 head on the place in late February when Agweek visited. "I normally feed until this time of year and then sell them," Dick says. Most go to Aberdeen (S.D.) Livestock in Aberdeen, about 30 miles away. In addition, they farm about 900 acres -- mostly corn and soybeans. About 30 percent goes into cattle feed, the rest goes to the elevator.


"Basically, cattle are our living," Dick says.

Deer depredation

Through much of the Meyers' farming career, deer have not been a problem. "If we had five to 10 head of deer in the yard in the wintertime, that was a lot," Dick says. Starting in the winter of 2009 to 2010, snow piled up so the deer couldn't find anything to eat and bunched up in huge herds.

The neighbors to the east have a "rush slough" about three-quarters of a mile away, where the deer hang out during the day. From 4 to 4:30 p.m., the deer would start making their way to the Meyers for supper.

"I'd go out there every 15 minutes and chase them out with a pickup," Dick recalls. "They'd be right back."

In early January 2010, Dick called the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department in the region and told them they needed to do something about the deer. One of the state's 24 wildlife damage specialists came out with a few bales, and a little shelled corn to feed the deer. They called it "short stop" feeding, a technique to bait the deer before they reached the farmstead.

"They'd bring enough feed for one day, and only do it every week to 10 days," Dick says. "They dumped the feed halfway between my place and the slough, so it didn't really stop them."

The deer looked sickly and traveled in groups of 150 to 500 at a time. Dick thinks much of the emaciation was caused by illness, which he considered a threat to his cattle.


"I would buy the starving part if they hadn't spent the previous month in my yard, using the same feed that was used to fatten my calves," he says. He tried to get the GF&P folks to test the deer for illnesses, to see if it was chronic wasting or something else. "I would say a third of them were sick. I'd go out there in the morning, and would see a down deer. And this is after this deer had had the best food it's had in its lifetime."

A game warden declined to send one of the animals to the diagnostic laboratory in Brookings, S.D., because he thought it had been hit by a vehicle.

Eventually, spring came and the deer left.

The ultimate solution?

During the 2010 to 2011 winter, the snow was deep again and the deer returned in groups of 150, Dick says. Once again, the Meyers thought that if they didn't get right on their case, the deer would get used to coming to their place.

Often, it would take a week to get the officials to the farm. Janell says deer problems are time-sensitive. "It's like calling the fire department and them saying they'll be right with you as soon as they get these other 10 places done."

Again, Meyer was on the phone in early January.

The GF&P officials first offered what Keith Fisk, a wildlife damage program administrator for the GF&P, describes as its "popular, portable panel" protection for Meyer's feedlot, but Meyer declined. He says his feed storage area was too large and the panels wouldn't allow him access from all directions. Fisk says others used the option with success.


Again, the GF&P did the short-stop feeding.

They asked Meyer to dig them a trench to the feed area, as dozens of others in the area did, but he declined. "I only have a two-wheel-drive tractor. It would have taken forever, and it would have blown in."

Janell says she could see when the trapper arrived from her sewing room. He didn't stop at the house just did his work and left. At one time, the trapper said he had 100 complaints and was trying to make the rounds.

"They took snowmobiles to the place where they'd feed them, and they'd make a track from our farmstead to the feeding place," Janell says. "When the deer ate up the (short-stop) grain, they followed the snowmobile track right to the farm."

They said their job wasn't to feed the deer, but to do the short-stop and bait the deer away from the farmer's


"They don't want to spend the money on it," she says. "They don't have the manpower to do it."

Even when the GF&P worker arrived, it didn't help.


Fisk says the feed deliveries were hampered by the fact that they were forced to use a snowmobile, instead of a truck.

"By the time he went and got a few square bales and a little shelled corn out there, a third of his day is shot," Janell says. "I said to the trapper, 'we'll give you the feed to get it away from the farmstead. Or give us the ability to get them out of here. They're destroying so much more than they're eating.'" The trapper told her he couldn't take their feed.'"

Meyer says his pregnant cows were aborting at a higher rate than usual. "It's one of them firestorm deals where -- boom, seven aborted. That's pretty unusual. The feed hadn't changed. The only thing different was that the deer were using the ground hay pile for a bathroom."

One day in January, Bob Curtis, a GF&P wildlife specialist, came to the yard for the short-stop feeding. Curtis indicated it would be okay to "haze" the deer. Dick took that to mean, go out 75 yards or so and "pepper them" with birdshot.

Curtis never would have advised him to shoot at the deer, Fisk says.

A couple of weeks later, another game warden and a trapper were in the yard. "They'd found three dead -- one with a shotgun and two with a rifle. Cody Symens (a game warden) was in the yard, telling me what a bad citizen I was," Dick says.

Fisk says there were six dead deer.

Dick acknowledges that it was possible that a deer may have been killed with a shotgun, but said he didn't have anything to do with the other ones. "They were going to fine me $1,000 for that one. That's what they claim a deer is worth."


"I wouldn't speculate," Dick says, when asked who may have shot them. He wonders if a neighbor may have fired on them, just trying to help him out. "I had people all the time, saying they'd do that if they could. It's right along the highway, anyone could shoot them."

On Feb. 3, the Spink County State's Attorney charged Dick with "wanton waste," in violation of SDCL 41-1-4. The prosecutor wanted a $200 fine and a $100 donation for the "Turn In Poachers" (TIPs) program. Dick's attorney worked out a plea bargain, so it never ended up going to court. Dick paid the fine on March 21, 2011.

Two months later, the Meyers got a letter from Jeanne L. Euker, GF&P's civil damage control coordinator in Pierre, S.D. In the letter dated June 9, Euker said the state would charge him $1,000 for destruction of public property. A civil suit would be brought against him unless he set up a payment plan.

Dick tried to call Euker, to "find out where they get the $1,000 figure from." (In North Dakota, he says, deer are worth only $500 per head in similar cases.) Eventually, he gave up.

"I sent them a check for $1,000, yup," Dick says. "I called my attorney and he said, it would cost more than it was worth to fight."

Legal, but ineffective

After the officials found the deer and charged him, the GF&P offered a new solution -- a depredation hunt.

"They have a pool of hunters that will come and eradicate the deer, they said. I don't know how they came up with the number, but they said we could get rid of 20 deer this way." Dick says they counted 150 deer at a time on their yard just before this. Whenever the GF&P officials came it was the middle of the day, and their paperwork said there were only 60 deer.

Fisk says Curtis came at different times of the day and evening, and the kill number is not designed to exterminate deer. "Once the weather gets well those deer are going to disperse," he says.

The procedure started with measuring a "zone" for the hunt.

The state trapper placed markers zoned off a half-mile from the Meyers place, toward the east, where the special hunters could take deer. The hunt would run Feb. 11 to 28.

"The trapper spent two days out here, setting up all of this," Dick says. "He stacked bales for a blind. He went and asked permission of the neighboring landowner. The deer had to come into the hunting zone before these hunters could hunt them."

On Feb. 9, however, the trapper came with more feed than before. He went toward the other farm and fed the deer. So for the first three or four days of the "depredation hunt," no deer entered the killing zone.

The depredation hunters are working men -- recreational hunters, living in towns in South Dakota "One called from Huron, three from Aberdeen, one from Watertown," Janell says. Four people contacted the Meyers, but only two ever showed up.

"GF&P would give the hunters our name. They'd call our house and ask when is the best time to hunt?" Janell says. "I'd explain that at about 4 p.m., they'd start walking toward the farm and the hunters would see them. They came out on weekends, but GF&P had fed them so much, so far away that they weren't coming in normally."

Dick says no deer were taken during the entire depredation hunt. He knows that because the snow was so deep the only place to park was in the Meyers' yard. They handed out tags to two hunters, but others never came out because of weather concerns.

Fisk says that on Feb. 23 the depredation hunt was extended to March 13, but the Meyers say they didn't hear about the extension, and no hunters called during the extension. "I wonder if the hunters knew about that?" Janell says. "I did not get a call."

Eventually, it warmed up and the deer dispersed. The GF&P officials never came back to get leftover the tags.

Fisk says after the bad winter the GF&P offered Meyer cost-share for materials for permanent protection from deer depredation, which has been "incredibly successful and real popular with producers," but that Meyer declined.

Legislative hopes?

Dick says he has never before been in trouble with the law (except for a recent traffic incident, in which he prevailed in court), and neither have any of his family members. Ten years ago he was a member of the local Farmers Union Oil Co., but otherwise has been out of the public eye.

"The big thing is, we don't want the deer in our yard," he says. "If it's GF&P's job to manage these deer then either manage the deer and end this suffering or pay us for the damages."

Janell says the typical reaction from people who live in town is that if the farmers would let people hunt on their land they wouldn't have a problem. "But if I have 150 deer in a square mile, is that my problem? These aren't our deer. Normally on our land we'd have five deer per square mile," Dick says.

"If a town guy had 150 bunnies in his backyard they'd probably notice it," Janell says.

Dick wrote to Dustin Oedekoven, the state veterinarian with the Animal Industry Board. Oedekoven says he advised the farmer to prevent deer interaction with his feed, but wasn't aware of any connection being made between the deer and abortion problems. He isn't aware of any proven link of that type anywhere in the state in 2011.

Dick also wrote to South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, asking that a fee be added to South Dakota hunting licenses, so an indemnity fund can be created. Daugaard forwarded the letter to Jeff Vonk, secretary of the South Dakota GF&P. On Feb. 15, Vonk sent Dick a letter in response.

Vonk said that a $5 surcharge is attached to most hunting licenses in South Dakota and has been in place since 1998. It is similar to the fund Dick suggested, except that it is used to "alleviate wildlife damage instead of going towards direct payments for damages," Vonk said. He said in 2011, GF&P had spent more than $1.9 million, "delivering programs that directly impacted more than 1,000 landowners." The program had delivered $14 million in materials and services and said the agency is "committed to providing landowners with the needed tools and assistance to reduce these depredation issues."

"I understand we have worked with you on deer depredation issues on your farm through both a depredation pool hunt and by providing feed to short-stop the deer from feeding on your livestock feed," Vonk said. "My understanding is that the cooperative efforts were successful at keeping the deer away from your stored feed supplies and the efforts prevented further damage."

Vonk told the Meyers that if they should have any future problems, they should contact the department "immediately to assist you."

Fisk says there is a state advisory board that helps the agency come up with its solutions for depredation, but that it would be impossible to pay farmers for "every ear of corn that a deer chews or every leaf of soybeans." He says his department offered Meyer a "ton of assistance" and that he would "still call them successful."

Meyer has contacted legislators to try to get them to sponsor a bill that would pay farmers for deer depredation. "I plan on contacting people again in the legislature, and try to get something done -- depending on who gets elected," he says.

Of course weather has helped. In the 2011 to 2012 winter, there were only 15 or 20 in a group, Janell says.

"That doesn't mean they won't be back."

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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