Ed Dumke is the man behind the curtain. The curtain is the feeding of elk in winter at the Sagewillow Barn in Elkhorn.
The longtime Sun Valley resident is a philanthropist of significant proportions, and when he gave the barn and barn property to The Community School, a private Sun Valley institution, some seven years ago, he also bequeathed upon the school the longstanding tradition of feeding wild elk herds there in winter.
But a recently filed lawsuit, along with ongoing prodding from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, is threatening to change that.
Filed by Ketchum attorney Edward Lawson on Nov. 14 on behalf of the Sagewillow Homeowners Association, the action seeks to end elk feeding, which it terms "socially and environmentally unsound."
Although the named defendant is The Community School, Dumke is the man who began the practice, and he said there's a story behind the story.
"I get really discouraged in this town when I see small things like this," he said during an interview at a Ketchum coffee shop. "I mean, the elk were there first. They were there before any of the homes were."
Ironically, Dumke himself developed the Sagewillow subdivision that seeks to end the practice of feeding elk. The subdivision helped displace the elk from their historic winter range.
It's a murky situation because much of the suitable elk winter range in the Wood River Valley has been displaced by private homes. But the solution, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, as well as to the Sagewillow Homeowners Association and their paid wildlife consultant, is not to feed. Feeding attracts the animals to homes, where they eat landscaping.
"A lot of people don't understand that the elk, their basic instinct is to use those riparian bottoms in the wintertime, and that's exactly where we've built those houses in the Wood River Valley," said David Parrish, Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Magic Valley regional supervisor. "And a lot of the elk have been forced onto those hillsides. And it's more marginal habitat.
"Our position and our department policy is we do not feed deer or elk unless emergency conditions exist. When you feed elk, you attract them into a confined area. They can easily contract diseases among individuals. It's not good for their health. That's the bottom line."
Dumke, who said the lawsuit was full of "so many lies," said the practice of feeding elk at Sagewillow began in the late 1970s or early 1980s. He and his wife bought the farm in 1978 and built the barn, complete with room for 40 horses, not long after.
The farm included an outdoor, covered haystack, and early on there was a particularly difficult winter.
"The elk came down to our property and started pulling down our haystacks," he said.
After one elk became ill, and after losing more hay, the feeding operation began.
"We started putting out the hay," he said. "We started putting it farther and farther away from the barn. We figured if we put it closer they'd come down and take it from the primary hay stack."
Sometimes there were between 30 and 40 elk. In difficult winters, however, there were as many as 150, Dumke said.
"They wouldn't choose to come down unless the snow was deep," he said. "They'd start high on the mountainside. They'd cross that fence (6 feet high) as if it were nothing. Simple little fences aren't going to keep them out of anywhere."
Dumke sold a ranch in East Idaho two years ago, but until that sale he used hay from the ranch to feed elk at Sagewillow, even after The Community School had taken over the operation. He said he budgeted between $10,000 and $12,000 per year to feed elk in Elkhorn. He also bought a used snowcat for the school to haul hay up for the elk.
"One time, unfortunately, the snowcat broke down, and they couldn't get anyone to repair it immediately, and so the elk went down into the yards and did damage, which is what they would do if you didn't feed them," he said. "Anyway, the poor school. Why didn't they name me (in the lawsuit)? I started it all. I'm behind it all."
Dumke added that when he subdivided Sagewillow, he specifically included a right-of-way from the barn property to the Sagewillow property for elk feeding.
"Everyone there signed into the CC&Rs, which specify elk feeding," he said.
But Lawson countered such an argument.
"There are other covenants that state that nobody will do anything that constitutes a nuisance to a neighbor," he said.
Lawson admitted the issue is difficult, but said the Sagewillow homeowners have been patient and cooperative in seeking a solution, "and thus far haven't received any real response from The Community School."
The homeowners offered to help fund a non-profit organization to help the school develop a plan.
"It's the manner with which it's being done (that is in dispute)," Lawson said, "which has caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to the lots (Dumke) developed. My clients have spent the better part of two years trying to avoid a lawsuit with The Community School, Dumke or anyone else."
Laswon qualified that the suit has not yet been served.
"Our hope is that the school will respond in a productive fashion," he said. "If they have another solution, we're open to considering it."
Parrish said Fish and Game has, in fact, been discussing the issue with The Community School, and the department is trying to wean itself from the practice of feeding elk in the winter.
"First, we don't want to see them putting artificial feed out for the animals," Parrish said. "As a last resort we may work with both The Community School and the homeowners to move some animals, but that's a very last resort."
Parrish said the elk that arrive in Elkhorn come from vast distances, some from Stanley Basin.
"They're a creature of habit," he said. "If they can find an easy meal one year they'll come back the next year. We see it all over Idaho. It's one of their natural strategies to survive the winter.
"We will continue to work with The Community School to alleviate this problem and get those animals to disperse. It's not going to happen overnight. People will have to have some patience with us, but we are working on it."
Parrish concluded by saying there are no black-and-white answers.
Underscoring the issue, Fish and Game officers worked for several hours earlier this week to rescue a cow elk from one of the man-made ponds in the Golden Eagle subdivision in mid-valley. The cow had been attracted there by a feeding operation and fell through the ice.
Asked why feeding was occurring before any snow had fallen, he said, "I have no idea."
"We're trying to get rid of all the feed sites up there," he said.