The decision by an Idaho Department of Fish and Game officer to shoot an elk on state Highway 75 north of Hailey last week was motivated by a concern for public safety—primarily due to the dangers created when traffic comes to a standstill, a department supervisor said.
“That’s an unfortunate decision to make, but we have to prioritize human safety over animal welfare,” said Josh Royse, law enforcement supervisor for the department’s Magic Valley Region.
Royse said the hazard relates to the possibility of a vehicle colliding with the elk or with other vehicles.
“Stopping traffic on a highway is a very unsafe set of circumstances,” he said. “People are traveling at high speeds and there aren’t proper traffic-control measures to give them adequate warning.”
He said the elk was not shot just to keep traffic flowing to avoid inconveniencing drivers.
Royse said the elk was a cow. He said he didn’t know its age or whether it was pregnant.
The incident occurred on Thursday, March 7, shortly before 12:30 p.m.
Blaine County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Holly Carter said the elk was spotted in a snowbank near the intersection of Treasure Lane by a sheriff’s deputy traveling north. Carter said the deputy did a U-turn and came back to the animal. By that time, it had stepped out of the snowbank and was standing on the highway, she said.
Carter said the Sheriff’s Office contacted the Department of Fish and Game, though private citizens had already called 911 with reports of the animal there, and a Fish and Game officer was already on his way to the scene.
Royse said the elk did not appear injured, but was in typical late-winter condition.
Carter and Royse said officers made multiple attempts to scare the elk off the road, but couldn’t persuade it to leave. Carter said one deputy tried to nudge the elk along with his car bumper.
“They were unsuccessful due to the snowbanks and berms and also the heavy traffic,” Royse said.
Carter said a deputy was told by an unidentified person that elk there had been chased toward the highway by a mountain lion, and officers thought that perhaps the elk on the highway was reluctant to leave it because she knew there was a lion in the vicinity.
Royse said the Fish and Game officer at the scene was told that another unidentified civilian had tried to get the elk to move before the officer arrived and was charged and injured by it.
Royse said that initially, northbound traffic was diverting into the south-bound lane to drive around the elk. He said sheriff’s deputies then stopped traffic in both directions.
Royse said conservation officers are authorized to euthanize animals when necessary. In this instance, he said, both he and the officer’s immediate supervisor authorized him to do so.
“This is a regrettable set of circumstances,” he said. “Anytime we have to euthanize an animal it’s not something that we take lightly.”
He said that typically, when a large animal is euthanized, the meat is donated to an indigent person. However, he said, that was not done in this case because of the late-winter condition of the elk.
Royse said the department can use a tranquilizer to immobilize a large animal when officers have some time to prepare for it. He said federal narcotics law requires tranquilizers to be stored at the regional office in Jerome; conservation officers are not allowed to carry them in their vehicles.
“In this instance, where time was of the essence, it was not a feasible option,” he said.
An initial brief story on the incident posted on the Idaho Mountain Express website last week received comments from 17 people, with 12 objecting to Fish and Game’s decision to shoot the elk.
“Why is killing always wildlife agencies’ go-to ‘solution’ for any human/wildlife conflict?” one commenter asked. “What a disgrace.”