Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The hills are alive with elk

Monarchs of the mountains roam highlands because of easy winter

Express Staff Writer

Since last winter?s trap-and-transplant operation at the Warm Springs Golf Course by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, none of the elk transplanted south of the Wood River Valley are known to have returned to the site of their capture. Altogether, the Fish and Game between January and February of 2006 captured a total of 108 elk out of a herd that numbered just slightly higher. This bull was one of the more than 100 elk that was living on the Warm Springs Golf Course until the trapping operation. Photo by Willy Cook

The snow-covered Warm Springs Golf Course is a quiet place this winter.

Except for the occasional person out walking a dog across its wide, shaded expanses of snow, there's little activity in northwest Ketchum.

Several well-worn trails wind through the knee-high snow and pass in and out of the golf course's scattered cottonwood and evergreen trees.

But these are human- and canine-created pathways, keep in mind.

Just about the only sounds to be heard are the pleasant murmurs of nearby Warm Springs Creek.

It's a far cry from a year ago.

Where the rolling flats of the Warm Springs Golf Course meet the lower timbered flanks of Bald Mountain, a herd of more than 100 elk found refuge in dense stands of evergreen trees like they had for numerous years before. Chewed up snow marked the wanderings of the large and tawny ungulates, generations of whom had become used to being fed at the golf course every winter.

In the cold, clear morning air last winter, residents living next to the golf course could listen as a distant cacophony of low grunts and shrill barks emanated from out of the dark timber where the elk herd had taken up refuge.

Nearby, a large corral-style enclosure erected by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in early January, 2006, stood waiting for an elk trap-and-transplant operation the agency was about to conduct.

Then, through the wintry months of January and February, Fish and Game biologists conducted four separate early-morning trapping operations. Altogether, a total of 108 elk were trapped and relocated elsewhere.

From the very first trapping operation to the last, the project was a success, said Randy Smith, Magic Valley regional wildlife manager.

"We were more successful than we expected to be," Smith said after the final operation took place on Feb. 16. "We were pleased that we could get it done in one winter."

Some of the elk captured during the four operations—mostly bulls and calves—were trucked up the Warm Springs Creek canyon in horse trailers to the agency's Bullwhacker winter feeding site.

The agency established the Bullwhacker site in 1980 to encourage elk to remain further up Warm Springs and not in residential Ketchum.

The remaining captured elk—primarily cows and some yearling calves—were also trucked away, but to more distant locations on the remote sagebrush flats near Minidoka and the desert hills off the Bennett Mountain Road, just north of Glenn's Ferry.

The operation's success marked the last winter of elk feeding operations at the Warm Springs Golf Course. For the past two decades, the owners of the golf course operated a private elk feeding operation.

So far, the majority of the transplanted elk appear to have remained at or near their release locations, Fish and Game Conservation Officer Lee Garwood said Monday.

The elk, all of whom were given yellow ear tags for future identification purposes, have likely become assimilated to their new surroundings, Garwood said. Many of them have joined new elk herds living near their release locations, he added.

So far, the Fish and Game knows of no elk transplanted to the south of the Wood River Valley that have returned, Garwood said.

While conducting a quick check of the Warm Springs Golf Course last weekend, Garwood said he saw very little sign of elk activity there.

Just a few old elk tracks crossing Warm Springs Creek were about all he could see in the crusted-over snow. Several tracks were also visible near the spot where a haystack was located next to the corral enclosure last winter.

"I didn't see anything that indicated a lot of fresh (elk) activity," Garwood said.

Such a low level of elk activity at the golf course would be normal in just about any given year, he said.

Elk typically prefer to spend winters on warmer—and therefore more snowfree—south-facing hillsides.

Even now, in a year of somewhat limited snowfall, numerous elk tracks split the south-facing slope north of Warm Springs Creek into a spider web of activity. Watch closely enough and the dark clustered shapes of scattered elk appear high above on the windy slopes.

Still, some elk inevitably find their way down from the relative security of the open hillsides to the cold, deep snow of places like the Warm Springs Golf Course, Garwood said.

"A few elk in there wouldn't surprise me at all," he said.

At least for now, the 2006-2007 winter is shaping up to be a relatively easy one for the Wood River Valley's elk herd, Garwood said.

He said the elk he's seen this winter have been in scattered, small herds. Up and down the Warm Springs Creek drainage, numerous groups of elk can be seen rooting around in the south-facing slope's shallow snowpack.

Only about 70 elk are being fed at the Fish and Game's Bullwhacker feed site. That compares to the more than 150 elk that were being fed there at the tail end of last winter, Garwood noted.

"That (number) could potentially double overnight if more snow arrives," Garwood said.

Sometime in February, the Fish and Game will be conducting the second overflight in two years of the agency's management unit 48. Unit 48 covers the headwaters of the Big Wood River north of Ketchum, all of the Warm Springs Creek drainage and all lands inside the Big Wood drainage west of the river and south of Ketchum.

Unless conditions change dramatically and heavy snows arrive, Garwood said he expects to see small bunches of elk distributed evenly across their normal winter range when he takes part in the fly-over.

"There's a lot of south-facing slopes that have opened up nicely with this weather," he said.

People don't need to be concerned when they see an elk staying in the same location for days or even weeks on end during the winter, Garwood said.

Elk do this as a survival mechanism, he said. Simply put, more movement means more calories burning.

"They spend their time not moving at all," Garwood said. "The goal is to survive until spring."

Compared with mule deer, elk are a far hardier animal and can usually handle what winter throws at them. However, most local mule deer migrate south of the Wood River Valley to easier winter range on the sagebrush deserts, Garwood said.

Last winter's fly-over survey placed the unit 48 elk herd at about 1,500 animals.

"I think that was the highest population estimate we've had for this unit," he said.

Garwood also noted that at least one and possibly two wolf packs are thought to be residing in the Wood River Valley area.

A group of wolves—one of which was radio-collared—was known to have been using an area south of Galena Summit last summer.

The Fish and Game has also heard numerous reports about another group of wolves occupying the area west of Highway 75 between Hailey and Warm Springs Creek, Garwood added.

Since the wolves' arrival in the area, anecdotal evidence from hunters and other outdoors people indicates that elk have become more wary in their activities, he said.

This includes less bugling by bulls during the September mating season and smaller elk herds spending more time in timbered areas, Garwood said.

"It's to be expected," he said. "Large ungulates are pretty good at avoidance."

Since being reintroduced into the area in the mid-1930s, the elk herd in the entire Wood River drainage has grown to the point that the Fish and game now estimates they number approximately 2,400. A portion of the Wood River drainage also falls into management unit 49.

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