An out-of-control herd of more than 8,000 wild elk has overrun its grazing grounds and is now disrupting surrounding cattle farms in southeastern Alberta, prompting calls for a mass cull.

The elk were introduced at nearby CFB Suffield in 1997 and 1998 to graze on the long grass around the military base, but the original population of about 200 has now grown to number between 8,000 and 10,000. The elk are now hopping over farmers’ fences in the area, spooking cattle and tearing up gardens as they look for the space and food to satisfy their growing numbers. Ranchers say they’re also concerned the huge elk herd will introduce disease to their healthy cattle and deer.

Cattle rancher Jeff Lewandoski says he’s worried the elk will spread tuberculosis or wasting disease to area livestock, ultimately forcing him and others to cull their herds.

“If nothing more is done about this problem, disease is going to set into these animals,” Lewandoski told CTV’s Canada AM on Tuesday.

“When they introduced these elk, they told us that they would manage these elk,” Lewandoski said. “The federal and provincial governments are doing far too little about this problem.”

Alberta officials have issued hunting licenses in an effort to control the elk population, but the animals can only be hunted away from the military base because of safety concerns.

Lewandoski says the problem is “too far gone” to fix with hunting. “Hunting these elk is one management tool, but it’s not the solution,” he said.

Lewandoski recommends a plan spearheaded by others in the area to round up the elk and cull them in large numbers, then send the meat to charities and homeless shelters.

CFB Suffield is surrounded by a national wildlife area about 458 square kilometres in size, according to Environment Canada. The area includes some of the last remaining native prairie grasslands in Alberta, and is home to a number of protected and at-risk animal species, including the Ferruginous hawk and the western harvest mouse.

The elk were introduced in 1997 and 1998 as a natural control for the wild grass, replacing a herd of wild horses that served the same purpose before that.

Herds of plains bison once grazed in the area, but they were hunted to the brink of extinction long ago. The plains bison’s natural predators, the prairie grizzly bear and the grey wolf, have also been driven out.

Now, the elk can sweep across the area without bears or wolves to control their numbers. And as they range farther from the base and discover the well-tended fields of neighbouring farmers, they become an ever-growing problem for the surrounding area.

“We need to get this problem in check,” Lewandoski said.