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Throughout the world, many species of wild animals resort to migration as a means to make their lives more comfortable. Along the way they face considerable hardship and many obstacles. African wildebeests move through a gauntlet of predators and raging rivers to reach greener pastures. Alaska’s great caribou herds face similar threats on their long journey to reach northern calving grounds.
JIM WARD photos With help from his brother, Kristian, OHA member Ty Hamilton takes aim at a “10 penny” on a stretch of pole fencing — constructed to give elk a crossing with less damage to the animals or the fence. With support from OHA chapters throughout the state, the Union/Wallowa county chapter is finishing up on this project, which also involved funds to help local ranchers with elk-damaged fences.
Elk migrate. The infamous elk herds of Yellowstone leave the heavy snows of the park to seek lower-elevation forage at Jackson Hole, Wyo.
For eons, elk have been migrating to the Grande Ronde valley. They move for pretty much the same reason the Yellowstone herds do, only the distance is much less.
Many early journals relate to elk in the valley. In 1812, Robert Stuart left Astoria and passed through the Hot Lake area, south of La Grande. This early visitor remarked about the “great number of elk antlers strewn about the banks of this large, sulfur lake.” Elk usually shed their antlers in late February and March, so it was likely these animals had spent the winter in the lake area — possibly feeding on the grasses exposed by the warm waters and steam.
In their short journey from the high country, Union County elk don’t face African lions or swollen rivers, but they do encounter obstacles — barbed wire. Most elk have learned to deal with this, but occasionally they slip up and get caught.
Our own Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area is a good example. Few areas in this valley see as much elk migration from the upper timber to the marsh below. Winter snows push the animals down to better forage on the marsh. There’s even a considerable movement in late summer, when forest grasses dry and elk drop down to more succulent crops. All this travel through the fences puts animals at risk.
Enter the Oregon Hunters Association. With considerable help from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Union County Work Crew, members of the Union/Wallowa County Oregon Hunters Association have removed several miles of barbed-wire from the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area.
At ritual elk crossings, pole fence sections have replaced wire on many private/state boundaries. Some landowners have received metal gates, allowing the ranchers to leave them open in winter when cattle aren’t in the pasture.
As soon as word spread about this project, Oregon Hunters Association chapters throughout the state chipped in funds to help.
The Rayburn ranch, bordering Ladd Marsh, gets up to 350 elk in winter — moving across their land to feed on Ladd Marsh alfalfa and standing wheat left for waterfowl. About one-half mile of the Rayburn’s fence gets hammered every winter. To make this fence a little friendlier to wildlife and ease the constant repair, the Oregon Hunters Association is putting in several sections of pole fencing and metal gates.
Helping Ladd Marsh elk with their daily travels is just half of the association’s mission in this project. The organization has a keen interest in helping to offset the costs to local landowners for elk damage to their fences. Several hundred t-posts, rolls of wire and a dozen metal gates were donated to help repair private fences. The club is grateful for the tolerance these people have for the wildlife that feed and move through their lands.
On occasion, private landowners, wildlife and hunters can be at odds with one another. But, a project such as this can show that when sleeves are rolled up and handshakes offered, barriers can be removed and fences can be mended.