Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Days numbered for Warm Springs elk

Fish and Game erects enclosure to trap Ketchum herd


By JASON KAUFFMAN
Express Staff Writer

Workers from TJ Welding of Blackfoot work to erect the portion of the corral where Idaho Fish and Game biologists will tag and draw blood samples from captured elk. Idaho Department of Fish and Game employees from the Magic Valley region, from right to left, Roger Olson, Randy Smith and David Parrish, speak with Hailey resident Gary Busch, left, about the upcoming trap and transplant operation for the elk of the Warm Springs Golf Course. Photo by Willy Cook

Piece by piece, a large, high solid-wall corral slowly took shape Saturday on the snow-covered grounds of the Warm Springs Golf Course, near Ketchum.

Only a short distance away, 10 to 15 cow elk watched as workers erected the enclosure for an upcoming trap and transplant operation being conducted by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The elk are part of a larger herd numbering close to 80 that currently inhabits the golf course and adjoining timbered slopes of Bald Mountain.

In anticipation of the trapping operation set for later this month, Fish and Game has set up a temporary feeding station on the 77-acre Warm Springs Ranch property, owned by development group Sun Valley Ventures.

Fish and Game officials hope the elk will become acclimatized to the enclosure well enough in the coming days to allow them to bait them into it in order to tag and transplant the herd's cows and calves to several sites both in and outside of the Wood River Valley. Fish and Game does not plan on capturing any of the herd's mature bull elk.

For now, department officials haven't set a date for the trapping effort.

"We'll leave the gates (to the corral) open for a week or two to get them really used to the trap," said Randy Smith, Idaho Fish and Game wildlife manager for the Magic Valley region.

Once that happens, Fish and Game officers will attempt to capture the elk and take blood samples to test for brucellosis before transporting them to their new homes. Brucellosis is an infectious disease carried by ungulates that some fear could harm the cattle industry.

While calves will likely be taken to the Fish and Game's Bullwhacker feeding site further up Warm Springs Canyon, the cows will be transported to one of two sites on the Snake River Plain between Arco and Minidoka or southwest of the Bennett Hills near Mountain Home.

Fish and Game established the Bullwhacker site in 1980 to encourage elk to remain further up the Warm Springs drainage and not in residential Ketchum.

Past experience has shown that cows taken only short distances away often return to their original capture site only days later, Smith said. Of 35 elk captured and transplanted south of Magic Reservoir during a similar operation back in 1979, a few returned, he said.

"Within several days some of the elk had shown up back there," Smith said.

Fish and Game discourages the feeding of elk on private lands because doing so disrupts natural migration patterns and makes them more susceptible to disease, Smith said. Left to their own devices, elk populations will learn how to survive given the areas they live in, he said.

For two decades, the owners of the Warm Springs Golf Course operated a private feeding operation. In recent years, however, Fish and Game has worked with the owners of the golf course and other private feeding operations throughout the Wood River Valley to shut down such operations.

Warm Springs Ranch, including the golf course, was sold to Sun Valley Ventures in 2003, facilitating changes in the feeding operations there.

The elk herd that currently inhabits the greater Wood River Valley is about 2,400 members strong, Smith said. Approximately 225 of those elk winter in the Warm Springs area, he said.

"We're certainly not taking all the elk out of Warm Springs," Smith said. "There's always going to be elk in Warm Springs."

Not everyone is in favor of ceasing the feeding operations at Warm Springs, however.

Longtime Ketchum resident and pharmacist Monte Straley is one such person.

Elk in the Wood River Valley have lost the majority of their migration routes and prime habitat, Straley said. This has caused them to take up residence in places they wouldn't normally inhabit, he said.

"The only reason elk are there (the golf course) is they have no other place to go," he said.

The loss of those routes and traditional winter grounds necessitates supplemental feeding operations, Straley said. "If they're not going to feed elk out there, they're going to need to move them," he said.

The valley's elk have repeatedly lost out as manmade pressures have mounted, Straley said.

"It's all political and the elk can't vote," he said.




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