Marcee Graff is an admitted elk feeder.
So is Randy Acker, a veterinarian at the Sun Valley Animal Center. The two of them, along with other unnamed co-conspirators, have engaged in a feeding scheme to help save the herd of elk that has spent the winter near The Community School campus at Sagewillow in the Elkhorn foothills.
Feeding elk in the area is controversial. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game discourages the practice and some homeowners in the area would like the elk out of their neighborhood.
One can hardly blame the elk. They've established a decades-long habit of wintering near the campus for the free hay that The Community School dispensed for them until December. The practice was discontinued after the Sagewillow Homeowners Association filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming that the elk herd was causing "collateral damage" to their properties by feasting on their trees and ornamental shrubbery.
But the elk are still there. A herd estimated at 30-55 head has roamed the Elkhorn area throughout the winter, grazing on evergreens at the golf course, ornamental shrubbery at residences, willows along the streams, exposed sagebrush and even tree bark.
They've had some help too, from Graff, Acker and others.
The Sun Valley Police Department has become involved in the matter. Someone who remains at large, on at least two occasions in February, spread previously baled hay on Community School property, an act that constitutes trespassing, said Sun Valley Police Chief Cameron Daggett.
"It's not illegal to feed, it's just illegal to trespass," Daggett said.
Graff, who lives nearby on Paintbrush Lane, and a few of her friends were caught in the act of feeding the elk on Thursday, March 6, when they were spotted by a campus caretaker who took down Graff's license plate number and called police. But Graff and friends weren't on school property, nor were they feeding baled hay. Rather, they were spreading alfalfa-timothy grass cubes on a private driveway near the entrance to the school campus.
"What we're doing is legal because we have the homeowner's permission," Graff said Wednesday. "I have no idea who is kicking out the hay bales."
Graff and Acker started quietly feeding the cubes in mid-February after two dead elk were discovered Feb. 5 on nearby Fireweed Lane. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game investigated the deaths and determined the animals didn't die of starvation but from eating yew, a non-native ornamental shrub that is poisonous.
Nonetheless, Graff and Acker maintain that the elk were starving to death prior to the supplemental feedings.
"When we started this, it was considered an emergency situation because the elk were dying," Acker said.
But are the feedings necessary to save the herd? Fish and Game says no.
"From our observations, the condition of the elk has remained from fair to good throughout the winter," said Regan Berkley, a Magic Valley regional wildlife biologist. "I was up there a week ago and the elk I saw I would say are in good condition."
"Why do you think that would be?" said Graff. "To me that says that we might be helping them with the supplemental feedings. We're really just trying to keep as many alive as we can. If you just stop feeding them cold, we know there will be way more than normal winter kill."
"Their hearts are in the right place," countered Berkley. "But there is natural habitat that the elk can use and it's going to be harder for the elk to learn to use that if they keep feeding them in the subdivisions. We would prefer that the elk learn to forage on natural forage. Feeding them is not going to encourage them to move on to natural forage that is available up the canyons."
Berkley acknowledged that past feeding at The Community School site is one of the reasons the herd has stayed in the area throughout the winter.
"That's certainly a big part of it," she said. "But also, that area is historic winter range. And the third reason is that some of the ornamental shrubs planted up there make pretty tasty elk food."