Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Elk translocation will take time

Guest opinion by David Parrish

David Parrish is the Magic Valley regional supervisor for the Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game.


On Dec. 2, the Idaho Mountain Express published an article about the planned relocation of elk from the Warm Springs Golf Course. Since then, there have been several letters to the editor and inquiries from concerned citizens for more information about the elk translocation project. In an effort to keep everyone apprised of the plans for the Warm Springs elk, we'd like to provide a brief synopsis of the history of elk at Warm Springs, and a summary of plans to trap and relocate elk from the Warm Springs Golf Course.

Though elk have always occurred in the Wood River Valley, their numbers dwindled during the settlement boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To boost numbers, several elk from Yellowstone National Park were relocated to the Wood River Valley between 1935 and 1937. The herd grew, and hunting permits were first issued in 1947. The elk herd has continued to grow, and IDFG uses hunting seasons and permit levels to control the size of the elk herd. The management goal is to maintain the herd at population levels that can be sustained by native habitat in and around the Wood River Valley.

The human population of the Wood River Valley has also continued to grow; the population of Hailey has jumped by more than 200% since 1980. Increased development has eliminated much of the elk winter range once provided in the Wood River Valley and surrounding foothills. Realizing this, many concerned citizens have elected to feed elk on private land during the winter. While these citizens' hearts are in the right place, feeding operations only compound the problems faced by the elk of the Wood River Valley.

Winter feeding can be detrimental to elk in many ways. First, the temptation of easily accessible food lures them away from the remaining natural winter range that occurs in some canyons and foothills adjacent to the Wood River corridor. Historically, some elk wintered in small groups in and around the Wood River Valley, while others migrated southward toward lower-elevation wintering grounds. Feeding operations interrupt these natural migrations and erode the herd's knowledge of migration routes and locations of winter habitat.

The increased density of animals congregating at feed sites can also pose problems for elk. Disease spreads more readily through animal contact, particularly at feed sites where animals are sharing food and jostling for access. High animal densities also attract predators, such as cougars and wolves. Calf production and winter mortality can also be negatively related to animal densities.

Finally, winter feeding poses special problems in a developed area. Feed sites that are close to roads increase the chances of elk-vehicle collisions and pose hazards to both elk and drivers. Elk do not remain at feed sites all the time; rather, they wander in and out to obtain food. En route, they may browse through yards, damaging private property and landscaping as they move about. Predators may also move into these areas, also searching for food. Domestic animals, such as cats and dogs, often come into conflict with both elk and their predators.

For more than two decades, the owners of the Warm Springs Golf Course operated a private elk feeding operation. Recently, Sun Valley Ventures, LLC (SVV) purchased the Warm Springs site; with it, they inherited the question of what to do with the 80+ elk that came to the golf course during the winter, expecting to find food. The SVV owners did not want to continue the feeding operation, and contacted IDFG for advice and assistance. During the winter of 2004/2005, elk were not fed at the Warm Springs site. Consequently, the elk that traditionally moved to the Warm Springs Golf Course moved into the neighborhoods of Ketchum to find forage. This resulted in significant damage to landscaping and private property, and proved to be an unacceptable solution to the problem of weaning elk from the Warm Springs feed site. IDFG and SVV are working together to craft a more tenable long-term solution.

During fall 2005, SVV worked with IDFG to purchase a corral-style elk trap. The trap has been constructed, and will soon be moved to the Warm Springs site. Once the trap is in place, elk will be baited into the trap site with hay and feed pellets. Trapping will commence once elk move into the area and become comfortable moving in and around the trap. We anticipate relocating between 25 and 50 elk this winter. This represents approximately 1-2% of the total known elk population of the Wood River Valley. Most calves and young bulls will be relocated to a Department-sponsored feed site further up Warm Springs Creek near Frenchman's Bend. This feed site is further from the subdivisions of Ketchum and can sustain more elk than are currently being fed. Calves and young bulls will not have an extensive personal history of moving to the Warm Springs site in the winter, and can likely be taught to winter at the Department-sponsored site or seek native winter range. Cows will be moved to a more distant site within IDFG's Magic Valley Region.

Translocation of elk will likely occur over the next two or three winters. During the same period, IDFG plans to conduct helicopter surveys of elk on the west side of the Wood River Valley (Game Management Unit 48), conduct ground-based surveys on the east side of the Wood River Valley (Game Management Unit 49), and radio-collar elk wintering near Bellevue. Trap and transplant operations are a last-resort option for managing elk herds; careful monitoring via surveys and research enables us to maintain elk herds at sustainable levels by manipulating hunting season structure. Elk numbers in the Wood River Valley have consistently exceeded IDFG management objectives over the past several years. We will continue to strive to meet management objectives, and to manage elk in a sustainable manner in the Wood River Valley. However, we continue to oppose private feeding operations in and around the Wood River Valley, as these operations are detrimental to elk, hazardous to people and pets, and do not present a sustainable long-term solution to the coexistence of elk and people in the Wood River Valley.

Should you wish to further discuss elk management in the Wood River Valley please don't hesitate to contact me or Wildlife Manager Randy Smith at 208-324-4350 and we will do our best to answer any questions you may have.

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