Friday, January 11, 2008

Why people should not feed elk

We support the Community School?s decision to stop feeding elk this winter, and in all subsequent wi

Regan Berkley is a biologist with the Magic Valley Region of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.


Recently, both Wood River Valley newspapers have featured several articles and letters to the editor regarding the feud between the Community School and Sagewillow homeowners in Sun Valley. Idaho Fish and Game staff have also responded to phone calls and questions from reporters, concerned citizens, and representatives from both the school and the homeowners. Fish and Game has long maintained that elk populations should be managed in proportion to the habitat that is available to support them. Because of the current conflict, we feel this is an opportune time to remind residents of the pitfalls of artificial feeding and offer a brief assessment of the situation in the Elkhorn area.

Winter feeding of elk is by no means a new phenomenon in the Wood River Valley. There is one Fish and Game-sanctioned feed site in the Warm Springs drainage, and numerous small and large private feed sites around the valley. The feed site near the Sagewillow subdivision is one of the older feed sites in the valley; the Dumke family began feeding elk there in the late 1970s or early 1980s, and the Community School has continued the practice.

The Elkhorn situation illustrates some familiar problems associated with elk feeding. Feed sites that are close to roads increase the chances of elk-vehicle collisions and pose hazards to both elk and motorists. 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. The presence of elk may attract mountain lions and perhaps wolves to these areas. Domestic animals, such as cats and dogs, often come into conflict with elk and their predators.

Winter feeding also poses many potential long-term problems for elk. 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 of 10-15 animals in and around the Wood River Valley, while others migrated southward toward lower-elevation wintering grounds. Older cow elk tend to be the leaders of elk groups, and their memories help direct younger animals along traditional migration routes. Feeding operations interrupt these natural migrations and erode the herd's knowledge of migration routes and locations of winter habitat. The longer a feeding operation continues, the fewer elk remain that remember how to move to natural 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.

Although feeding elk seems to be the right thing to do to prevent winter hardships, elk are wild animals, and are therefore equipped with the ability, developed over thousands of years of co-evolution with their habitat, to cope with the difficulties of winter. The hard reality that some animals die during the winter is how nature maintains a balance between available habitat and the number of animals that use that habitat.

The well-meaning individuals who feed elk aim to mitigate for the fact that much of the winter habitat in the Wood River valley has been developed. Although their hearts are in the right place, there are two important facts to remember. First, there is still winter range for elk in Blaine County. Small groups of elk can, and in many cases do, winter on south-facing slopes and in valleys adjacent to the Big Wood River. Second, elk are wild animals that rely on experience and instincts to survive. Feeding erodes the experience of an elk herd, and forces them into human-dominated habitats and situations, both of which reduce their ability to survive in the wild, and diminishes the essence of what makes a wild animal wild.

The Community School, Sagewillow residents and the press have all asked us, "What happens if the school stops feeding the elk?" The answer to this question is uncertain, but some scenarios are more likely than others. For the first 2-5 years, elk will still expect to find handouts at their traditional feed site. When they realize there is no feed, they will likely choose the most physiologically expedient option: move to the nearest and easiest food source, which will likely be trees and shrubs in nearby subdivisions. This, of course, is the very problem that has prompted the current conflict between the homeowners and the school. Stopping feeding will be hard; it will be politically and socially unpopular, and some elk may not make it through a hard winter. Over the past two years, we have relayed this information to all of the parties involved in this situation.

However, there is hope. In the long term, stopping feeding is the right thing to do for both elk and humans. Elk do not belong in subdivisions. The constant presence of people, cars, lights, fences and dogs are unnatural stresses that wild elk are poorly equipped to handle. Elk belong on natural winter range, such as the south-facing slopes in Parker and Keystone gulches behind the school and subdivision. Many Wood River elk still migrate southward during the winters to the considerable winter range that exists towards the south end of the valley.

Undoubtedly, some damage will occur to landscaping within nearby subdivisions. Many of the trees and shrubs used in ornamental plantings are very attractive to elk as winter forage. However, to help minimize private property damage and speed elk transition to winter range, homeowners can help make subdivisions an unwelcome place for elk by using noise and lights to haze elk out of their yards and using temporary fencing and other barriers to prevent elk from using landscaping as winter forage. These measures will expedite the process of moving many of the elk onto better, natural habitat.

More importantly, the school and homeowners can stay committed to the decision not to feed elk. Occasional feeding of elk, no matter how well-intentioned, will only serve to lengthen the time it takes for elk to learn to use natural winter range.

Finally, we have been asked how Fish and Game can help with the current situation in Elkhorn. Specifically, many residents remember that we trapped and moved elk off the Warm Springs golf course in 2005, and we have been asked whether we would consider trapping and moving the Elkhorn animals. We consider trapping and transplanting elk an option of last resort for several reasons. First, any trapping and transplant operation involves potential risk for people and elk. Second, it is our goal, whenever possible, to keep Wood River Valley elk in the Wood River Valley. Unlike the Warm Springs situation, the Elkhorn elk are close to sufficient winter range and could eventually learn to use this natural habitat. Third, Fish and Game is funded by hunting and fishing licenses and federal grants; not taxpayer dollars. We are hesitant to use sportsmen's money to fund an expensive trapping effort intended to solve a problem not created by sportsmen.

Finally, it seems futile to continue trapping and transplanting elk in the Wood River Valley without assurances that artificial feeding will truly and perpetually be discontinued. Such an effort would require too much money and risk to only have someone start feeding again two or even 10 years from now. For this reason, we encourage both the school and the community to consider drafting and championing a "no feeding" ordinance in Blaine County.

In short, we support the Community School's decision to stop feeding elk this winter, and in all subsequent winters. We will do everything we can to provide technical advice and expertise to both the school and the homeowners as they face the next few difficult winters. We will continue, as we have in the past, to assess winter conditions and both the size and condition of local elk herds in the Wood River Valley. Although stopping feeding will undoubtedly be hard in many respects, it is in the best of interest of elk and people in the Elkhorn area.

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