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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
208.726.8060 Voice
208.726.2329 Fax

Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

For the week of December 24 - 30, 2002

Opinion Column

Elk do not need 
supplemental feed 
in winter

Guest opinion by DAVID PARRISH

David Parrish is the Magic Valley regional supervisor for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Recently, Wood River Valley newspapers published several articles and letters soliciting funds to feed elk during the winter. While the individuals promoting winter elk feeding undoubtedly have good intentions, their efforts are counterproductive in the long-term and not in the best interest of the valley’s elk population.

Often, the public equates winter survival and feeding of elk to feeding of domestic livestock. This is a poor analogy. Except in extreme, emergency situations Wood River elk do not need supplemental feed during winter. Elk, along with other native wildlife, have developed strategies to survive harsh winter conditions. These strategies include seasonal fat reserves to provide winter energy, reduced winter metabolic rates, and use of thermal cover to minimize core body heat loss.

Disturbance by pets or people that increase deer or elk avoidance activity result in animals burning their fat reserves on avoidance rather than survival. Supplemental winter-feeding often pulls elk away from their traditional winter ranges and compromises their natural survival capabilities. Feeding concentrates them where mortality from predators, disease, vehicles, and other human activities increases. In addition, concentrating elk near residences results in substantial damage to landscaping and private property.

The concentration of elk on feed grounds increases the probability of disease transmission. On native range, elk tend to spread out and do not have as much direct contact with each other. Often, elk that contract a fatal disease will isolate themselves from herds due to their inability to forage. A diseased elk that survives and locates on a feeding site tends to provide a vector to expose a large segment of the elk population to the fatal pathogen. Although our knowledge about the transmission of fatal diseases such as tuberculosis, chronic wasting disease, and brucellosis are limited, we do know that chances for the diseases spreading are much high(er) in populations brought into direct contact with each other in confined feeding situations. In recent years, brucellosis has been detected in winter-fed elk in eastern Idaho, putting at risk Idaho’s brucellosis-free status. The state of Idaho is now involved in an expensive program to trap and test fed elk and destroy those elk that test positive for brucellosis. Feeding in the Big Wood Valley increases the probability that disease testing will be necessary in upcoming years at considerable expense.

When elk are lured away from native habitat to artificial feed, their natural winter use patterns are altered and they often return year after year to locations where they were fed. A prime example of long-term effects can be seen at the Golden Eagle Ranch Subdivision where more than 10 years ago well-meaning Wood River residents established an unnecessary elk feed site. Now that feeding has stopped, elk continue to migrate to the site expecting forage. Instead, they find homes with palatable trees and shrubs used for landscaping. Homeowners now must deal with the expense and inconvenience of elk foraging for food. Adequate native winter range for these elk is available in the hills above the subdivision. Last year, a limited amount of hazing of elk was allowed in an attempt to condition elk to stay away from the subdivision. This year we are encouraging homeowners to protect individual trees and shrubs by wrapping them with protective materials. Active harassment of elk at Golden Eagle Ranch Subdivision will not be an option this coming winter.

The Fish and Game’s management objective for the Wood River elk herd is to have as many elk as can be supported on native winter range. As elk feeding activities increase in the valley, the result is increased harvest levels and lower elk numbers. The Department has a responsibility to manage elk at a level that is compatible with the urban expansion that is occurring in the valley. Maintaining elk at artificially high numbers with winter-feeding is not part of that objective. Over the past 15 years, the urbanization of the valley has reduced the number of elk that can be supported during winter. However, adequate habitat currently exists to support a substantial elk herd without winter-feeding. The solution is to work together to avoid winter-feeding and domestication of this valuable wildlife resource and to conserve and protect the habitat elk need to flourish.

The Department has a policy to only feed wildlife under emergency conditions. The Magic Valley Winter Feeding Advisory Group in conjunction with the Department has developed criteria that define "emergency conditions". These criteria consider both the biological needs of elk and social issues and are intended to be used as guidelines to help determine when supplemental winter-feeding is necessary.

Recently, state Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, pulled together a diverse group interested in elk management and developed a document entitled "Wood River Elk Management." This document identifies the protection and management of elk habitat as one of the top priorities for maintaining future healthy elk populations in the valley. We suggest you get a copy of that plan and see how you might help implement some the its ideas and recommendations. If you want to make a contribution of money to benefit Wood River Valley elk populations, please consider donating to organizations such as the Wood River Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation or the Wood River Land Trust. Their work to secure and improve winter range for the benefit of wild elk populations is the best strategy to provide elk for the future in the Wood River Valley.


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