By Jayson Jacoby
For The Observer
Every day Eddie Miguez and his crew prepare gourmet meals, and every day their thankless customers ignore the tasty spread and munch dry grass instead.
Deer and elk, it turns out, are as finicky as a food critic with acid-reflux.
But Miguez refuses to scrap the menu.
He knows that his daily offerings Â— alfalfa hay for the elk, nutritious pellets for the deer Â— will stimulate the animals' saliva glands as soon as temperatures plunge and snow piles high.
Miguez manages the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Elkhorn Wildlife Area.
He and his four-member crew oversee a series of 10 sites along the eastern base of the Elkhorn Mountains where every winter ODFW waylays deer and elk with copious quantities of food. The forage satiates the animals' appetites before they gallop into the valley and start gorging themselves on ranchers' haystacks.
But so far this season, Miguez said, relatively few wild critters have taken handouts from humans.
About 110 elk arrived recently at the Anthony Creek feeding site near the Wildlife Area headquarters on River Lane west of North Powder. And a couple of dozen deer, lacking a feeding site anywhere near Deer Creek, have instead created a taxonomically confusing situation by gathering at Elk Creek and Antelope Peak to chomp ODFW-provided pellets.
The other sites, which by midwinter usually attract more than 1,000 elk and hundreds of deer each day, remain empty.
"It's been really slow so far," Miguez said Tuesday. "Which is not surprising at all given what the weather's been."
What the weather's been is mild.
Balmy temperatures and a shortage of storms have resulted in a dearth of snow at lower elevations, Miguez said. And that means deer and elk are finding plenty of food up in the timbered hills that loom above the feeding sites.
"If they've got any kind of natural forage available, they'd rather eat that," Miguez said. "The animals couldn't ask for an easier winter so far."
His alfalfa-and-pellet balance sheets illustrate the point.
During an average December, the Wildlife Area workers toss about 100 tons of hay around the feeding sites.
But unless blizzards bear down on the area between now and New Year's Day, Miguez doubts his crew will scatter even 25 tons this December.
And the animals that have congregated at feeding sites are eating less than they would if temperatures were below freezing, he said.
"When it's this mild they don't need to eat as much just to heat their bodies," Miguez said.
And with snow so scarce, deer and elk needn't burn precious calories digging through drifts to expose forage.
"They just don't need (ODFW's food) yet," Miguez said. "They're not really dependent on it yet."
This is news to warm the hearts of hunters.
Well-fed deer and elk are much more likely to survive winter's depredations Â— and thus be roaming the woods when hunting season arrives next fall.
Deer, which are more susceptible than elk are to the hazards of harsh weather, seem to be thriving, in fact.
Officials saw more bucks than usual in the Sumpter Unit during aerial surveys earlier this month, said Todd Callaway, a biologist at the Baker City ODFW office.
Another easy winter Â— so far
This is the second straight leisurely December for Eastern Oregon's deer and elk herds.
Last December Miguez and his assistants distributed 25 tons of alfalfa among the feeding sites.
But rarely does December weather remain so tame. And when it turns wild, Miguez and his crew have to buck bales and bags of pellets with reckless abandon.
In December 2001, for example, snow lay deep at every feeding site. Temperatures hunkered down in the teens and 20s.
During that month, elk marched in force on the Wildlife Area and chewed through 225 tons of ODFW's alfalfa.
Harsh weather persisted for much of that winter, and by the spring thaw the voracious animals had run up a tab of 855 tons Â— including 80 tons Miguez had to buy in late winter to restock the Wildlife Area's rapidly emptying barns.
Last winter, by contrast, the soft weather that defined December continued, with just a few snowy interruptions, until spring.
The Wildlife Area crew hauled a mere 235 tons of alfalfa, just slightly more than they used during December alone the year before.
This summer Miguez needed to buy just 100 tons of fresh hay to refill his only slightly depleted barns.
That slashed ODFW's hay bill by about $72,000, compared with the 820 tons he bought the year before at an average price of about $100 per ton.
The wildlife area receives about 75 percent of its budget from a federal tax on firearms and ammunition.
The state provides the other 25 percent with money from the sale of hunting licenses and tags.
Miguez began this season with about 665 tons of alfalfa, which ought to be enough Â— especially with such a sluggish start to the feeding season.
He won't complain, though, if the weather turns and the elk end up eating every bale. Hay left over this spring would be three years removed from the field by next winter, and Miguez said elk at some feed sites react to three-year-old alfalfa with as much enthusiasm as the average third-grader given a plate heaped with steamed broccoli.
"We want to be able to feed 'em (the elk, not the third-grader) the best we can," Miguez said.
Trapping animals Â— with food
ODFW created the Elkhorn Wildlife Area in 1971 Â— but not to save deer and elk from starvation.
Rather, the feeding sites with their regularly replenished piles of food serve as high-protein traps that snare famished animals before they reach the stacks of hay that valley ranchers grow each summer to feed their cattle.
For many decades before 1971, hundreds of voracious elk and deer marauded haystacks across the valley almost every winter.
This conflict between cattle and wildlife was inevitable Â— the fields where ranchers raise hay and pasture their cattle in winter are the same fields to which deer and elk used to migrate when snow buried their summer range in the high mountains.
As it happened, those seasonal movements helped ODFW biologists devise their solution to the conflict.
The biologists selected as feeding sites several places squarely in the middle of the animals' traditional migration routes. And even more importantly, officials picked places that deer and elk will come upon before they get to any rancher's hay stockpile.
The concept is elegant in its simplicity.
Deer and elk start moving when the weather worsens, and they stop when they find food. The animals, of course, care not a whit who supplies their meals, and they seem to savor ODFW's alfalfa as much as they do the ranchers'.
During the 32 years since ODFW opened the Wildlife Area, deer and elk herds have learned to travel to the feeding sites as soon as winter drapes an impenetrable blanket of snow over the Elkhorns.
And so long as Miguez and his co-workers keep the larder full, the animals, with an occasional exception, stay clear of ranchers' hay supplies.