Friday, November 2, 2012

End of elk feeding breeds concern

Homeowners, Fish and Game say ‘cold-turkey’ method not ideal

Express Staff Writer

Courtesy photo by Karen Melk A group of elk gobble up hay at a Timber Gulch feed site last year. This year, the feeding might stop after 20 years, causing concern among homeowners and wildlife officials.

Elk have been fed in Timber Gulch, west of state Highway 75 near Greenhorn Gulch, for more than 20 years. 

But this year, homeowners and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game say they are concerned that limited access to the land where the feeding normally takes place could pose problems for both elk and people in the area.

Johnna Pletcher, a Gimlet resident and Wood River Valley resident for 40-plus years, said the herd, which now numbers roughly 300 animals, has been feeding in the area since long before the Golden Eagle and Timberview Terrace subdivisions were built there.

“That whole area used to be a huge alfalfa field,” she said. “There was no need to feed the elk, because there weren’t any houses.

She said the elk could move around the area and forage freely.

Pletcher said that when Golden Eagle and the Timberview Terraces were built about 20 years ago, landowner and developer Harry Rinker helped to orchestrate an elk-feeding program, in which hay was set out for the herd that used to graze on the land where houses had been built. 

Timberview Terrace resident Karen Melk said that though members of the homeowners associations paid $300 a year for the program, Rinker ensured that hay was purchased and spread out daily.

Pletcher and Melk said that now, access to the land has been cut off, and the elk feeding program would not go forth as usual this year.

Multiple calls to the Rinker Co. and Rinker himself were not returned as of press deadline. However, there is a new sign and gate at the access to the 792-acre property, blocking the way to not only the elk-feeding site but a well-used hiking trail in the area.

Pletcher said she is concerned about what will happen to the elk if feeding is completely cut off without warning.

“I appreciate Rinker feeding them for this long,” she said. “But the bottom line is, they have been habituated. You can’t just change a feeding location. The elk literally just stand there, waiting for the food to be delivered to them.”

And moving elk to a different feeding site is not as easy as it would appear. Pletcher said that roughly 15 years ago, Rinker switched a feeding site from lower in the canyon to Timber Gulch, and attempted to use snow machines to herd the elk to the new site.

“Elk don’t herd,” she said. “They are not a cow, they are not a sheep, they are not a goat—they’re elk.”

Instead, the elk scattered, running off fat reserves, and spread into the subdivisions, where they caused trouble by eating bushes and trees and destroying landscaping.

Jerome Hansen, Idaho Department of Fish and Game Magic Valley regional supervisor, said the same thing could happen this year if feeding is stopped entirely.

“There is kind of a quandary about what to do,” he said. “Obviously, they started feeding them with good intentions. Now they are thinking they do not want to continue, again with good intentions.”

Hansen said the best solution would be a phased program, in which feed is either slowly moved or given out less often. He said a phased program would enable the agency to learn about the herd’s movements.

“We don’t know a lot about where the elk are really coming from,” he said. “The more we can learn fairly quickly, the more we could figure out some other solutions.”

Hansen said that there are a number of possible solutions, including a targeted public hunt that would reduce the herd’s numbers.

“The cold turkey thing worries us a little bit,” he said. “We’re going to have a lot of elk out there wondering, ‘Where’s our feed?’ And they will find some way to get into mischief.”

Hansen said that as Timber Gulch is less than a mile from Highway 75, he is concerned that parts of the herd may cross the highway if they cannot find enough food.

“I think there are probably going to be additional issues with people’s landscaping,” he said.

Pletcher said that for now, she is trying to find another piece of land that might work for an alternate feeding site. She said she has her eye on one property adjacent to the highway north of Greenhorn Gulch Road, where the sheep graze as they trail up and down the valley.

She said she is concerned about the land’s proximity to the highway, but she thinks it would cause fewer problems than simply stopping the feed.

“Of course it’s a problem, but it’s better than having them running all over the place looking for food,” she said. “It’s a really bad situation either way.”

Kate Wutz:

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