Thursday, February 19, 2009

Wintering Elk

Yesterday afternoon, I noticed we had visitors at the geldings hay feeder. Although it was snowing and the late afternoon light made it a bit more difficult to see, I knew we had elk helping themselves to the hay. Pete protects his hay shed every year by fencing it off from our neighboring elk herd. But now that they’ve discovered the geldings’ hay in an open feeder, it will be difficult to keep them out.


For much of the winter, they’ve been hanging around on the nearby hillside, coming down to the river to water and returning across our meadows in the early morning and evening. I’ve noticed, like I do every winter, their tracks in the meadows as they commute to the river and back. When I snowshoe on the hillside, I've heard them crashing in the oak brush and I've counted their nesting indentations in the snow. But their unparalled silence and stealth fend off my intrusion and they disappear into the oak and chokecherry bushes above me. Now, mid-winter, they've moved further into the valley floor.


Winter itself is usually not a problem for elk. Winter forces elk to migrate from higher elevations into the valleys and protected wooded areas. Elk naturally eat twigs and grasses in the winter, which are harder to digest than the tender grasses of summer. If the season is unusually long or cold, or the snow is extremely deep, covering up shrubs, twigs, and bark, they do risk depleting nutritional stores and eventual death if they are a young or weak animal. But gathered now along the cottonwood-lined river, this group of elk is protected from the wind and can feed on the bark of the trees.


It is not unusual for our neighboring elk population to come down and feed with the livestock in our valley. Because of this rather regular occurrence in the middle of the winter, ranchers in the West often ask for and receive assistance from the Department of Wildlife. The DOW provides assistance in a variety of ways including: the provision of fencing materials for hay storage sheds; the construction of ex-closures where livestock can be fed and the elk are kept out; the provision of rubber bullets to pressure the animals away from the feed; and reimbursement of the cost of replacement hay for a rancher’s livestock. When the elk present a more persistent and damaging problem to ranchers, regional DOW policy permits ranchers to harvest a small number of the foraging elk. This policy is rooted in DOW’s management of elk herd populations over the course of the year. In recent years, elk populations have remained higher than expected after hunting season because many elk herds find refuge on private lands. Extending the hunting season in this way, enables the DOW to continue to reduce some of the elk herd population and facilitate seeking a balance in their habitat.


After speaking with our DOW official, Mike Middleton, I felt reassured when he told me, “The only things that can really kill an elk are a bullet or a bumper. They are incredibly durable animals.” Whether we feed them or not won’t determine their survival. With his help we will begin our own management plan by first fending off the elk with rubber bullets and a twelve gauge shotgun as they arrive in the early evening. We will also ask to be reimbursed for the cost of the hay which is estimated at eight pounds a day per elk.


Managing the needs of our domestic livestock operation and the needs of these wild animals is not a simple one, but knowing this magnificent species will survive, whether or not we pressure them out of the feeders, allows me to enjoy and admire their enduring presence in our neighborhood.


To learn more about elk or to listen to an elk bugling, click on this link: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/elk.html


To read more about the debate over feeding elk, click on this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/18/us/18elk.html?_r=1

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