When deer damage orchards, what does Utah owe fruit growers?

Box Elder producers struggle with big game flattening new apricot, nectarine trees.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jordan Riley of Riley Farm Foods prunes a sweet cherry tree while checking the orchards for signs of frost, April 14, 2020. Riley is among several Perry fruit growers whose trees are being damaged by deer. They would like the state to compensate them for future lost production, not just the cost of replacing the trees.

It’s hard to hate the mule deer showing up in your yard this time of year, but the patience of some of Box Elder County fruit growers is wearing thin.

Free-roaming deer frequent orchards around Perry at night and flatten young apricot, nectarine and peach trees, according to complaints filed with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR).

The cost of deer-proof fencing is prohibitive and hunting big game at night is illegal, so orchardists are left with few options other than asking the state for compensation. The problem pits two cherished Utah values, big game and fruit growing, against each other.

Todd Eskelsen, Jordan Riley and other fruit Perry producers hope to find a way for the two to live in harmony, but in the meantime, it is hard to see new trees reach maturity in deer country.

Situated along a canal that delivers water from Pineview Reservoir, Perry’s orchards sit below DWR’s Brigham Face Wildlife Management Area that provides summer habitat for deer in the northern Wasatch Mountains. As the animals migrate to lower ground in the fall they often pass through the orchards.

“I’m right at the interface between the wildlife and agriculture,” said Eskelsen, a novice grower from Maryland who is turning his father’s longtime property in Perry into a commercial operation. “We have been talking with the DWR about how we can continue to grow our crops and coexist with the deer.”

His dad’s 17 acres came with 125 mature apricot trees, but, over the past few years, Eskelsen has planted 3,000 young trees that are at risk.

“The deer nibble off the budding on all of the trees, but they also, particularly on younger trees that have a little give in them, use them to scratch,” Eskelsen said. “And in so doing, you can break them off right at the graft junction.”

With residential development chewing up open land nearby, deer are increasingly getting pushed into orchards, according to Riley, who grows cherries, peaches and other fruit on 180 acres near Eskelsen.

“The buck are the worst. They’ll come in and rake those antlers to get the felt off. In one night, they can take down dozens if they stay there,” Riley said. “All deer will come in and eat the tender shoots and buds. Where they do that, especially in the wintertime, they’ll kill the tree back and that’ll hurt the productivity of the trees. We could live with that. It’s when you kill the whole tree, it becomes a very expensive proposition.”

Now Eskelsen is in a dispute with DWR over how he should be compensated, which the Wildlife Board will referee at its Tuesday meeting. The wildlife agency is willing to pay only the cost of replacing his damaged trees; Eskelsen insists he deserves to be compensated for future harvests he won’t see, according to his filings.

DWR contends Eskelsen’s method is “speculative and unreliable” and is asking the Wildlife Board to reject it.

“The proposed predictive model uses variables that are not allowed by statute and exceeds the 1-year damage calculation time period established in rule,” the agency wrote in its filing.

A hearing officer already has sided with Eskelsen in a ruling that could make it much more costly to the state if it is upheld. Since wildlife belongs to the people of Utah, taxpayers are ultimately on the hook for the fences big game knock down, the alfalfa they eat and other damages.

DWR takes numerous steps to reduce such damage, according to agency spokeswoman Faith Jolley.

“When wildlife do cause damage to crops and other property, the division’s depredation program helps address those issues,” she said. “We work alongside agricultural producers to develop a variety of options intended to alleviate the damage.”

Killing and hazing big game animals is a last resort, but the agency issues “depredation” permits, allowing farmers and ranchers to shoot deer out of season. In the Perry case, such permits were awarded to Eskelsen and his neighbors, but they were able to kill only a single deer last year.

Unlike coyotes, which are shot indiscriminately in Utah, mule deer are valued wildlife and enjoy broad protections. Under pressure from predators, hunting, drought, loss of habitat and collisions with motor vehicles, deer numbers in Utah remain below what wildlife officials believe are optimal. Accordingly, DWR is reluctant to kill problem deer. And so are the orchardists.

“I am not wanting to kill off all the deer by any means,” Eskelsen said. “I recognize that I’m going to have some losses from deer and I’m happy to work with [DWR] not to take the deer out and get compensation for the loss and replant the trees. But it’s just too much. What the department has been paying has been well below the value of the tree.”

Last year, deer demolished 141 apricot trees, 88 pluot trees and 31 nectarine trees in the Eskelsen orchard, according to his filing. DWR offered $4,187.61, reflecting the cost of replanting the lost trees. Using a model that accounted for the lost future production of fruit, Eskelsen calculated his losses at closer to $14,000.

“The problem is that when you have a tree that gets damaged, you have to make an order for that to an orchard, and they may very well have orders already for their existing stock,” Eskelsen said. “They may take your order and graft the trees for the following year, so it may take two and possibly three years to get a replacement tree.”

It takes up to seven years for a new tree to bear fruit, so replacing it could set the production clock back years. That’s money lost to the grower that is not covered by DWR’s math.

“We do have more trees coming this spring, and I’ll be able to plant more,” Eskelsen said. “But meanwhile, there’s more damage. We’ve had deer in the orchards again. They’ve come down now in the recent snows.”

He and other Perry orchardists have permits to kill a limited number of deer, but they may hunt only with archery tools and only during the day. And the deer come only at night.