Thursday, August 12, 2010

Elk Viewing Threatened by State Elk Plan -- A Call to Action

Persons who love elk watching in Boxley Valley have reason for concern.  The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is rushing through an elk management plan for Boxley Valley that threatens a tourist attraction that brings thousands of visitors from all 50 states and many foreign countries. These elk tourists spend millions of badly needed dollars in the regional tourist-based economy, helping Arkansas hold the line during difficult economic times. 

Anything that would harm or reduce elk tourism in the weakest economy in anyone's memory will spell the loss of jobs, small businesses, and revenues. Elk watching has continued to expand steadily, straight into a recessionary headwind. It must be protected and expanded. Elk watching is a major draw, one that seems recession-proof. 

Above: Over 7,000 different people visit the Arkansas Wildlife Photography from all over Arkansas. The elk-centered site draws around 15,000 viewers from all 50 states, and 33 foreign countries who are deeply interested in the Arkansas elk viewing in Boxley Valley. 

Local Concerns About the Elk
The AGFC has relied on testimony of a handful of farmers to frame a planned reduction of the elk herd in Boxley Valley. As one who spends hundreds of days a year in Boxley Valley, I can attest that claims of crop damage, fence breakage, and other elk-related problems are largely overstated. They are actually reduced compared to the past. 

Two years ago a 300+ acre food plot was planted in the fields surrounding Highways 43 and 21. This food plot was planted for the elk, the same elk that are now fingered as a nuisance by local farmers. It was also planted with governmental subsidy. 

The food plot has not increased elk numbers in Boxley Valley, it has shifted the elk from elsewhere in the valley to the food plot. Truth be told, the food plot has actually reduced past elk problems for farmers who graze cattle. Four years ago the elk were scattered across the Boxley Valley, in the last two years, the animals have shifted south to the feed plots, and in the fields further south, most of which are not in production

The problems of the past are largely gone. Concerned farmers have little to complain about except memories from before the food plot was planted two years ago. They do not like the fact that Boxley Valley is a National Historic District and part of the Buffalo National River park. These frustrations get placed on the small Boxley Valley elk herd. 

Farmers are frustrated by the occasional tourists that jump fences to get closer to the elk. That is an enforcement issue, not an elk issue. There is a need for beefed up enforcement during peak elk viewing periods, roughly from mid-September to mid-October. This is the peak of the annual elk mating season, the rut. 

Peak tourism occurs each fall. For about 4 weeks visitors fill area cabins for the elk rut. From mid September to mid October, one month, tourists can witness the spectacle of the huge bull elk bugling and running cows in the fields by highway 43 and 21, the food plot area. Sometimes the herds migrate to other areas of the valley, but they always return to the food plot after a short time. During this period, the NPS and local sheriff should patrol Boxley Valley and keep things orderly, especially in the evenings. 

At other times of the year, elk viewing traffic in Boxley Valley is steady, but not problematic. 95+% of the time, the only elk to be seen are in the food plot fields and mostly at the ends of the day. 

AGFC is talking of a hunt to reduce the elk herd in Boxley Valley. This would be a horrible mistake for a couple of reasons. First, there are not too many elk, the claims of damages and problems are largely pre-food plot, and are greatly exaggerated. If anything, Boxley Valley elk numbers are down. Yes, they are down, not up. Sometimes there are a number of elk in the valley, but these are migrating groups and they soon leave. Often one cannot find a single elk the whole length of the valley. I would say on average, there are 30-50 elk in the Boxley Valley, and they are in the 300 acre food plot. This is hardly overpopulation.

I have never witnessed a single elk damage a fence. I have seen dozens of cattle do so. An elk can walk up to a 4 foot fence, pause, and jump over it without touching it. There is a reason elk-proof fences are built at 6 feet and up, elk don't think twice about 4 feet. They don't break them either. Cattle break fences all the time. 

Another complaint is traffic hazards. One elk per year on average is killed or hit by cars in Boxley Valley. I would rate the hazard of hitting an elk roughly equal to hitting a whitetail deer. I have never had a close call with an elk in hundreds of visits to the valley. Elk do cross the road, but very infrequently, and that is no hardship on anyone. Elk don't bolt in front of cars quite like deer. I think this complaint is a non-starter. 

Similarly, some have complained that tourists speed through Boxley Valley. People who speed in Boxley Valley are locals. Tourists go slow and take in the sights. I do see area residents travel Boxley Valley at over 60 miles an hour. Speeders are a hazard to everyone, tourists and residents of Boxley Valley alike. This is an enforcement issue. Tourists go slowly, and often stop and gawk.  There is a need for more pullout areas. 

What Course Should Be Taken? 
What should be done if there are too many elk in Boxley Valley? (They are not overpopulated, but let's look at it for sake of argument.) There are two choices, kill them, or relocate them. 

Option one, killing the elk takes a very limited resource, the elk, and provides a sporting experience for one person. Any hunt would be very small, so the number of hunters and any economic benefit they might provide would be say 25 elk killed, by 25 hunters, in one or two days. For sake of this example lets say they stay two nights in a local cabin = 50 cabin rentals. 
This is a one time, every few year benefit because the herd is very small. Lets say we need a new controlled hunt every 4th year. Take the 50 divide it by 4, and the hunt yields 12 cabin rental nights a year. 

Option two, move the elk and create another Boxley Valley-like elk viewing and wildlife watching experience. These same 25 elk, viewed by tourists actually multiply through natural reproduction. The resource is not exhausted, it actually bears interest. Again for sake of argument, let's say 12 net calf births a year. After 4 years, the population is roughly 60 elk, about the same population generally viewed in Boxley Valley. If promoted, these same elk draw thousands of tourists a year. Even if they stay only two nights each, that is a 4 year benefit of 1,000 elk viewing tourists is 1,000 times 2 nights, times 4 years -- 8,000 room rentals, or 2,000 room rentals a year. 

This is the bottom line. If you take 2,000 room rentals (viewing) divided by 12 room rentals (hunting), you can see that the economic benefit of elk watching is 166 times greater.  In dollar terms, at $100 a night cabin rental, it is $200,000 for viewing, vs. $1.200 for hunting a year. 
(This is a very conservative number, there will be many more than 1,000 elk tourists in another viewing venue. )

In these economic times, it is in everyone's interest to harness the enormous economic multiplier of elk watching vs. elk hunting.. In this economic context, we must err on the side of revenues, on the side of creating new attractions, and protecting jobs, businesses and tax revenues. It is in everyone's interest. 

Excess elk should not be killed, they should be relocated to create more elk viewing tourism. If we create a couple of more Boxley Valleys, Arkansas can become a national elk viewing destination. We have 18% of the population of the US within two tanks of gas. Imagine the impact of making the Gene Rush WMA a second elk viewing destination on par with Boxley Valley. That would double the viewing opportunities, and could provide the basis for an expanded promotion of the wildlife viewing resource. You can only kill an elk once, but you can view them year after year, and sell rooms, meals and local goods to visitors year after year. 

But what about the handful of Boxley Valley farmers?  If they have problems, let's compensate them for those problems. In view of the conservative 166x multiplier of viewing vs. hunting, we can afford it. It is clear we cannot afford to drive the elk off and curtail elk tourism. Elk viewing tourism is the way to create serious tourism-based revenues

We can also afford the improvements to Boxley Valley to make it tourist-friendly. Improvements to Boxley Valley will pay for themselves overnight. Truthfully, they already have as elk viewing underpins local tourism. Elk viewing is often the one factor that tips the balance in decisions to vacation in Arkansas vs. another state. 

Business people use the concept of "strategic competence" as a fancy way of saying you should do more of what you are good at to make money. It turns out we are very good at attracting tourist to view our elk. The Ponca Elk Education Center is by far the most attended of any education center in Arkansas, it has grown every year. The elk website attracts 15,000 visitors from 50 states, and 33 countries. It has grown 100% each year. 

The bottom line is we are very good at promoting elk watching. We need to expand on what we are good at. We know that elk tourism it is already a major source of revenue for Arkansas tourism.  With a little work and imagination, we can become the elk viewing destination for the South. In this economy, we have to do everything we can to build on our successes and attract more tourism. Our economic future hinges on making the right decision. 

How to Stop the Proposed Boxley Valley Elk Hunt
Write Cory Gray at to express your opposition to a Boxley Valley elk hunt. This must be done as soon as possible. His phone number is 877-367-3559. If you would, please cc: so we can track emails to AGFC on this issue. We must act now, the future of elk tourism is in the balance. Comment closes in a few days.