Elk on the Zumwalt Prairie compete with cattle and other wildlife for habitat and are being hazed toward the national forest this winter. KATY NESBITT / The Observer
In the past 20 years many of the elk in Wallowa County’s Chesnimnus wildlife unit have shifted their habitat range from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest to private land on the Zumwalt Prairie.
Though the reasons for this vary, moving the elk back onto the forest is supported by ranchers, hunters, nonprofits and wildlife agencies alike.
In 2000, 635 elk of 1,973 counted in an aerial survey of the Chesnimnus unit were on the Zumwalt Prairie. In the following decade the number of elk on the prairie grew astronomically. In 2011 3,483 of 5,063 elk were now calling the prairie home.
John Williams, Wallowa County’s Oregon State University Extension agent, said a few years Tom Birkmaier, who grazes cattle on the prairie, came to him and said elk were competing for forage with his livestock.
“Tom asked me, ‘Can you help us landowners?’ I started working with him and other landowners facilitating the process,” said Williams.
Vic Coggins, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Enterprise district manager, said the agency has used hazing for years around fields on the prairie, generally in the spring.
“The elk tend to come out now and hang around all winter until spring green-up,” said Coggins.
Two years ago ODFW hired a temporary employee to haze elk off of the prairie north to the national forest. Williams said he then asked Wallowa Resources, a local natural resources nonprofit, to get involved.
Williams said, “We brought Wallowa Resources in two years ago when we wanted to go after the big grants. They are grant writers and I’ve continued to facilitate to keep the landowners moving forward and communicating.”
Ranchers’ concerns over elk on the prairie date back at least to the 1960s, Williams said, when Tom’s father, Mac, was struggling with them. More than 20 landowners are now involved with the project, and Mark Porter of Wallowa Resources and Williams keep in touch with them on a regular basis.
Cooperation from the landowners is crucial for the project’s success. They allow access to their land and grant permission to open gates.
Elk hazers Craig Nichols and Chad Dotson said they have opened 170 gates this winter to ease the elk herds’ movement.
While it has been a concern with ranchers for a long time, the impact of elk herds is also a concern for the Nature Conservancy that manages 33,000 acres they call the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve.
Preserve Manager Jeff Fields said his organization’s main concern with the high numbers are competition with wildlife that use shrubs for nesting and forage. The elk browse on shrubs and aspen that are critical habitat for song birds, raptors, rodents and badgers.
“Shrubs such as rose, water birch and snowberry are really important to sharptail grouse who overwinter on the prairie,” said Fields.
According to Porter, hazing isn’t new to the Zumwalt. Recent efforts, though, are focusing not only on moving the elk back to public lands, but a low-stress management style is being used to gently move the elk.
Hazing began shortly after hunting season, extended through December this year, and will end in late April to give the elk some breathing room before elk calving season, which begins in late May or early June, said Porter.
STRATEGY SESSION: Mark Porter of Wallowa Resources and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Enterprise District Manager Vic Coggins discuss progress of the elk hazing on the Zumwalt Prairie. KATIE NESBITT / The Observer
Many of the elk that reside on the prairie have never known another home, Porter said, so it may take a few years to train them to move to the forest. Nichols, who is working as a hazer for a second season, has a philosophy. He says he uses “gentle persuasion relentlessly applied.”
Low-stress handling of livestock has been around for some time, but moving wildlife is vastly different. Nichols, who runs the 6 Ranch with his wife, Liza Jane, said he first envisioned elk hazing on horseback. He quickly realized that being on foot or on an all-terrain vehicle worked much better.
“There are a world of options within the daily routine,” Nichols said.
Unlike cattle, elk can’t be approached too closely. Nichols and Dotson start off looking for herds of elk between 100 and 500 head on foot. Nichols said when they sense the humans’ presence via their senses of sight, smell or hearing, they are inclined to move.
Walking on ground west of the Zumwalt Road on a still, sunny winter morning, a herd of about 80 elk sensed the hazers and started moving southwest, the exact opposite of what Nichols planned. Seeing that the herd was not going in the right direction, Nichols and Dotson drove to another area of the preserve. When that herd noticed the hazers, they too moved in the wrong direction.
The third time was the charm. A herd of a few hundred, located on conservancy’s preserve, were spotted. Nichols and Dotson split up and from distances of a half mile to a mile, the sound of the motors got the elk up and moving north toward the forest.
Hazing isn’t the only tool in the box used to diminish elk numbers on the prairie. In addition to the extended hunting season, land owners can turn in a bull tag and receive two cow tags to encourage more elk removal.
Elk-friendly fence is another way that the cooperators hope to ease migration. Fencing that keeps cattle in their designated pasture but is high enough for elk calves to crawl under and low enough for adult elk to jump over is extremely helpful. A tangled calf in a fence can create problems for both ranchers and wildlife
The project has been funded through ODFW’s Access and Habitat fund that is supported with hunting licenses and tags. The Nature Conservancy and other private donors contributed money as well, Porter said.
For the future, grants are being written to the Wallowa County Soil and Water Conservation District, the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.