Monday, January 26, 2009

The Elk Zone

Last night, KTVB-Channel 7 reported on people feeding elk right in their backyards in Garden Valley. Apparently, some elk will eat right out of human hands.

It's hard to believe these are the same animals that so successfully elude hunters in the high country. But elk are opportunistic animals, and they're not going to pass up easy food during the harsh winter months.

Elk feeding has a long tradition in the West. In some areas, like Donnelley, ranchers feed elk from sleds--bringing in money from tourists and keeping elk away from their cattle. The most famous feeding area, the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming, draws about 11,000 elk (plus some bison and equally opportunistic wolves) each year.

Elk feeding areas are controversial, with some conservationists claiming that they become reservoirs for disease, with so many animals feeding in a concentrated area. Others believe large numbers of elk would not make it through the winter without them.

Which begs the question: How did elk survive the winter before feeding areas?

The unfortunate truth is that many of the places elk spent the winter are now covered in houses. The valleys where snowfall is light are often the first places to be developed. The town of Jackson cut off many migration routes, which is why the National Elk Refuge is necessary.

Of course, the best conservation option now is to ensure that important big game wintering areas and migration routes remain undeveloped. Many such areas are ranches, farms and private forest lands, all of which face increasing pressures from developers. Conservation incentives like easements to keep these lands in production--and open for wildlife--makes more sense than trying to make feeding areas compensate for a lack of habitat.

You can also help by avoiding areas used by big game animals--the stress of your presence burns calories they'll need to get through the season.

Elk can be amazingly adaptable animals. One well-known bull elk hung out with a herd of cattle last winter right off the Boise Greenbelt, no doubt enjoying the easy food and safety. After a brief hiatus this fall, he returned to his adopted herd for this winter.

But as adaptable as elk are, they still need good habitat. No feeding area will make up for the loss of natural feed to shopping malls, roads and housing developments.--Matt Miller

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