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La Grande Observer Paper 08/20/14

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Elk-friendly fence

Three elk crossings have gone up along a cattle fence on Foothill Road. The crossings were installed at places where there is heavy elk traffic. - The Observer/DICK MASON
Three elk crossings have gone up along a cattle fence on Foothill Road. The crossings were installed at places where there is heavy elk traffic. - The Observer/DICK MASON
A fence along Foothill Road that elk find daunting may soon seem like a mere speed bump to the animals.

Three wooden crossings have been put in by Friends of Ladd Marsh in portions of a .75-mile private cattle fence along the west side of Foothill Road. The 30-inch-high crossings are about 18 inches lower than the fence and much easier for elk to get over. The crossings are also high enough to discourage cattle from escaping.

Eddie Miguez, supervisor of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Ladd Marsh, Elkhorn and Wenaha wildlife areas, is optimistic about the crossings. He has seen similar ones work effectively for elk near the Oregon coast in the Jewell area.

The Jewell crossings proved to be gems. Miguez believes the same may prove true for the ones on Foothill Road.

“They (Friends of Ladd Marsh) are to be commended for their efforts. They not only help wildlife but they help private landowners,’’ said Miguez, who earlier worked for the ODFW in the Jewell area.

The Foothill Road crossings are intended to make it easier for elk to make their daily journey to and from Ladd Marsh and protect landowner Irwin Smutz from having his fence damaged.

Elk hurdle, go under and sometimes plow through the fence. They sometimes get entangled in the fence and injured.

Elk calves capable of getting past fences are sometimes intimidated by them, said Jim Ward, head of Friends of Ladd Marsh. He remembers once seeing a desperate elk calf running back and forth along a Foothill Road fence after the herd had left it behind. It was a disturbing sight but fortunately the young elk later made it past the fence after its mother returned to lend encouragement.

Elk calves should have no trouble going under the crossings since each has ample space to crawl under.

About 100 elk are now coming down each evening to feed at Ladd Marsh on or near Smutz’s land. The elk return to the hillside timber early in the morning. Each time they must cross Foothill Road and one of its fences. In the winter at least 300 elk sometimes come down each evening to feed in the Ladd Marsh area near Smutz’s property.

Miguez said it may be a year before most of the elk become familiar with and begin using the crossings.

“After a while they (the elk) will know they are there. The longer they are out there, the better,’’ Miguez said.

The ODFW biologist noted that the fence area on 20 or 30 feet on each side of the crossings may begin taking a beating. He explained that many elk will be funneling into the crossings and sometimes jumping over or knocking down the fence near them. Still, there will ultimately be less fence to repair since the damage will be concentrated in small areas.

It is easier to repair fence in a few concentrated areas than over a larger stretch.

“There will be less damage to the entire fence,’’ Miguez said.

Smutz appreciates the efforts of Friends of Ladd Marsh, since the crossings are meant to reduce his property damage.

“Jim Ward has a good heart,’’ Smutz said. “He is a very good man.’’

Smutz said elk take a heavy toll on his fence while traveling to and from Ladd Marsh.

“They do a lot of damage. They string wire all over the place,’’ he said.

Much of the harm is done when elk panic, Smutz said. They then run over the fence instead of hurdling it.

Smutz has not been grazing his 90 cattle near the crossings but will later. He hopes his cattle will not go over the crossings even though they are physically able to. The idea behind the crossings is that when cattle have a large area to graze they will not escape from their enclosure if it requires extra work.

Smutz said he will not know if the crossings will keep his cattle in until autumn when it is usually harder for them to find vegetation.

“The real test will be in the fall when the grass dries out,’’ he said.

Friends of Ladd Marsh put the crossings in with help from a Union County Work Crew, which does community service projects under the direction of the Union County Sheriff’s Department.

The crossings were installed with funding provided by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The RMEF has close ties to Ladd Marsh.

This land where the crossings were put is near a 900-acre tract that was privately owned until about eight years ago when it was purchased by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The land is now managed by the ODFW and is part of the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area.

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