Saturday, May 3, 2008

Marauding elk more than a nuisance, ranchers say

GRANTS, N. M. (KRQE) Hundreds of elk are being shot and killed in the Zuni Mountains not by hunters but by ranchers.

One of those ranchers is Brad Lethem whose place is northwest of Grants. He's armed with a rifle, the only weapon he said he has left in his fight against the 330 elk invading his land.

The state introduced elk here in the 1970s long after his family bought the land, and the elk have steadily multiplied over the years.

"We got bout 90 head of elk on us this morning," he said. "We are fixing to take care of this problem one more time."

On this day he shoots one elk, but over the past few months he said he's shot dozens upon dozens.

"I don't like doing it," Lethem told KRQE News 13. "I was brought up with way better morals in life."

Lethem isn't alone.

"It breaks my heart to do it; it really does," Larry Smith said.

Smith is in the same situation. The ranchers said this isn't the way they want to solve this problem, but they believe they have no other option.

Ranching is their livelihood, and they are losing too much money.

"We have what those elk want," "We got feed and water, and that is why we've got them."

"I could not grow a crop," Smith said. "It would get up 4 or 5 inches, 6 inches, and the elk would come in and in one night and demolish my whole field."

Smith and Lethem said the food they're raising needs to go to their cattle. If it's gone their cows can't survive, and they can't make money.

This is the other big problem.

"This is what I do every dang day, fix the fence, and it's getting real old," Lethem said.

Lethem said he spends thousands of dollars fixing fence the elk rip down. If he doesn't, his cattle get out, and if he loses them he loses still more money.

"It's tough enough in this ranching business without these elk," he said.

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish department said it's been trying to work with Lethem for three years.

"At this point he's rejected everything that we've offered him," Ross Morgan of Game and Fish said. "We've offered anywhere from wildlife-friendly fencing, 50-50 cost-share projects to water guzzlers to things like that."

And they've offered to let hunters on the property so the killed animals don't rot and go to waste. However Lethem said that's too much of a liability.

"We make our living off cattle," he said. "We don't make our living off hunting elk."

The ranchers also believe the problem lies with Game and Fish.

"Absolutely," Smith said. "They mismanage their herds."

It appears *his fight will wage on and there are many similar battles across the state. Recently a rancher in Cimarron shot 39 antelope because they were eating his crop."

State law does allow ranchers to kill an animal to protect their property although that's not the way Game and Fish want it handled.

"We do try to work and do everything possible to get those elk off that property," Morgan said.

But ranchers said it's not enough.

"It's just a battle, and we are tired of it," Lethem said. "We're just tired of it."

Ranchers are required to call Game and Fish within 24 hours of killing an animal so officers can try to salvage it for food. But game officers said that is not always possible, and the meat often must left in the forest for scavengers.

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