Ringing The Dinner Bell For Wintering Elk

Feb 16, 2012

WildWilTHORP, Wash. – As snow blankets the mountains around Ellensburg, Washington, elk herds traditionally make their way to the valley below. Now that farmers have planted their roots near the Yakima River, elk are not able to graze there during winter months.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has set up wintering grounds for these herds, but there’s a problem: Once it snows the elk can’t find food in these non-traditional areas. Correspondent Courtney Flatt traveled with several biologists as they fed one elk herd.

A flatbed truck makes its way into Joe Watt Canyon, just outside Ellensburg, Wash. It’s loaded down with hay, and as it rounds the corner 600 elk turn their heads. The dinner bell has rung.

A chain link fence keeps onlookers out, and the elk inside this wildlife area. The fence protects farmers’ hay fields and orchards in the valley below. It’s also the reason the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife must feed this elk herd, every day. All winter long.

Shana Winegeart is the area’s wildlife manager. She says balancing elk and human needs mixes science with a bit of art.

“It’s a big money problem if you have few hundred elk in a timothy field. Yeah, it’s a big loss for somebody. They eat things, but then also if you have a new seeding, they’ll trample the ground and cause the seeding to fail, or it just makes it patchy,” Winegeart says.

As the truck pulls into the canyon, Winegeart stands on the back with Brandon Zahn. Along with Craig Schnebly, Zahn feeds the herd every day. He says the majestic sight never gets old.

Zahn begins untying the hay bales. On average they feed about seven pounds a day to each elk. It’s a sunny morning, and a few elk cows shyly inch their way closer to the truck. Zahn pushes a stack of hay off the truck bed every few feet.

“When it’s really cold out, we’re feeding really good hay. They’re really, really hungry. They’re right here as soon as stuff starts comin’ off the truck,” Zahn says.

Sometimes, when they’re really hungry, the braver elk will even grab hay off the truck bed. This wildlife area is not where the herd would like to be hanging out in the winter. If they had their way, and no fence holding them back, the elk would stick together in little groups all throughout the valley. That way they’d be able to munch on native grass, picking through larger areas and moving on when they’ve eaten everything.

But with the herd bunched together over the snow-covered ground, they need the extra hay dropped off each morning.

“They’ve got winter coats on, so they’re pretty fluffy and fuzzy. It’s hard to tell, people don’t realize that they’re actually not in very good shape. That cow, you can tell she’s an older cow – you can see her ribs a little bit. Really, under a winter coat, they’ve lost all their fat, especially later in the spring. They’re just eeking out a living at that point,” Winegeart says.

And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. What elk need to be protected from at that point, Winegeart says, is us. People straining to see the massive bulls – the bulls get to be around 800 pounds. And what’s becoming more popular each spring: shed hunting.

The sport sounds like it’d make good reality TV: avid hunters stake out the herd in search of the best antlers shed by the elk. Winegeart says more aggressive shed hunters can scare the elk during their quest.

“They wanna come in as soon as those antlers come off. Well, these animals are still in poor condition. They’re still hanging out low, and a lot of times they can’t get up to the higher ground to get away,” Winegeart says.

Montana and Wyoming have had to regulate shed hunting because of the stress it causes animals. It’s a secretive and often competitive sport. Hunter Chris Manns studies the herd from behind the fence. He says he loves watching the animals and spots a large bull making his way down the hillside.

“There was one nine-point out there that I was trying to find. I just caught a glimpse of him and then he disappeared. But, he was a good lookin’ one,” Manns says.

Craig Schnebly has been feeding this herd for 20 years. He can recognize most of the bulls, and says not only do they look good, but they develop their own personalities over the years.

“Most of these that are in here grew up on the gravy train, so to speak, as calves. They could be 20 years old and be here on the lot. Yeah, you get to know them pretty well. They’re ready to come in the first day you start feeding. Those have been trained. But you go out during hunting season and try and find them, see what they act like. That’s a different story,” Schnebly says.

After feeding this part of the Yakima herd, Schnebly and Zahn begin loading up four more hay to feed more elk in a different part of the wildlife area.

The warm weather this winter held off feeding until mid-January. It usually starts a month earlier. Winegeart says the department was fortunate to have a late start this year.

“Our budgets have been cut so badly here recently that it makes it really creative to try to find ways to feed. Luckily, we’ve got this hay that’s donated. So on the one hand, it’s not the highest quality. On the other hand, the price is right,” Winegeart says.

Idaho and Oregon also feed elk herds throughout the winter. That’s until the snow melts and the herds can migrate to higher elevations in the spring.

Copyright 2012 EarthFix