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Northwestern farmers are are losing crops to hungry elk

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Widespread drought in Washington and Oregon is hurting crops and wildlife. The dry conditions are forcing elk down from the mountains to raid haystacks for food, and climate scientists say more frequent droughts will only increase these sort of conflicts. The Northwest News Network's Anna King has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELK CHEWING)

ANNA KING, BYLINE: That's a curious elk eating food pellets placed near a remote camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELK CHEWING)

KING: This video is from the Northwest Trek Wildlife Park near Tacoma.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELK CHEWING)

KING: These elk are well-fed at the 700-plus-acre facility. But for wild elk in the Northwest this winter, it's a different story. Anthony Leggett's farm is nestled in the foothills of eastern Oregon. He grows pasture grass, barley and puts up big stacks of hay.

ANTHONY LEGGETT: Your hay is your paycheck. That's how you pay your bills. That's how you support your family.

KING: So when hungry elk munch on his haystacks, it costs him a lot of money.

LEGGETT: You know, there's not a program I'm aware of where you get reimbursed for hay that's eaten by animals. You just have to take your lumps with it and keep moving.

KING: Across the West, widespread drought, followed by deep snow, has left elk, deer and even wild turkeys a bit desperate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOEY MCCANNA: This summer was very hot and dry.

KING: That's Joey McCanna, with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, speaking to a group of wildlife managers. He counsels hay growers and ranchers to set up elk-proof electric fencing and loud sound cannons to haze them, like the Zon Mark IV.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNON EXPLODING)

KING: And if that doesn't work, the state issues hunting permits. McCanna says this year's drought means farmers have less hay. Prices are way up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCANNA: And alfalfa and grass hay are at a premium right now.

KING: The drought is also causing wildlife to change their habits.

MEADE KROSBY: They shift their ranges. They want to track the change in climate as it happens.

KING: That's Meade Krosby, a senior scientist at the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group. She says increasing droughts, floods and fires are pushing animals off their normal ranges.

KROSBY: They have to move so fast, but they have all of this stuff in the way. They have roads and highways in the way. They have cities in the way, agricultural areas.

KING: Where the haystacks are - giant haystacks weighing up to 500 tons.

At the Northwest Hay Expo in Kennewick, Wash., farmers roam the great hall, checking out the latest in balers, twine and tarping technology.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi, how are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good.

KING: Clint Vieu's company rents tarps to cover haystacks because without them...

CLINT VIEU: They'll eat into it so much that it actually destabilizes the stack, and then it'll collapse and fall on the animals.

KING: Killing the elk, so both the animals and farmers lose out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

KING: Every year, elk bust up eastern Oregon farmer Anthony Leggett's fences to get to his hay. And every year, he mends them. He doesn't see things getting better.

LEGGETT: You know, if I chase them off my property, they just go to the neighbor's property and get into their haystack.

KING: Elk used to range across the West. Now, as the warming climate pushes them into fragmented habitats, farmers can expect even more frequent elk run-ins in the future.

For NPR News, I'm Anna King. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.
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