SNOW DICTATES WHERE ELK, DEER DINE
By Jayson Jacoby
For The Observer
NORTH POWDER Eddie Miguez is trying to play Pied Piper to a bunch of elk and deer, but they're not following.
Miguez knows they will come, though, and with their multiple stomachs growling, when the season's first real blizzard whistles through Baker County.
Miguez manages the Elkhorn Wildlife Area for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. He oversees a series of 10 sites along the eastern base of the Elkhorn Mountains, where ODFW entices the wild herds with free food, a tactic designed to keep the voracious animals out of the haystacks that valley ranchers assemble every summer to feed their livestock through the long winters.
So far this year, deer and elk are turning up their sensitive noses at the tasty alfalfa and nutritious pellets Miguez and his crew have offered. This is a sharp contrast to a year ago, when the animals munched several tons every day.
The difference, Miguez said, is snow. Last year, drifts were deep by Thanksgiving, covering the grasses and shrubs that deer and elk prefer. To replenish the energy they expended simply to survive in the frigid weather, they were forced to eat what was offered them. But so far this year, snow is absent in many places, and shallow in most others. That means elk and deer are finding plenty of natural forage to fill their stomachs, and they don't need handouts of hay and other feed, Miguez said.
"As long as they have forage elsewhere they'll stay on that," he said. "They'd rather have that natural feed if it's available."
ODFW set up the Elkhorn Wildlife Area in 1971, and has added several other feed sites over the ensuing three decades. But its purpose never has been to save wild animals from the slow death of starvation.
For many decades prior to 1971, deer and elk migrated every autumn from their summer range in the high mountains down to the lowlands, moving from one property to the next and leaving frustrated ranchers and hungry cattle in their wake.
ODFW officials figured they could curb that conflict by intercepting the elk and deer between the mountains and the valley using their appetites against them, you might say. ODFW biologists selected several sites, each one along a traditional migration route, where they distribute food every day.
The agency's strategy has succeeded in most cases, for a simple reason: Deer and elk don't care whether their meals come from ODFW's haystacks or a rancher's. So as long as the state's feed sites are stocked, most of the animals stay there and leave the privately owned hay for Herefords, Miguez said.
Although the ODFW's menu is limited alfalfa hay for elk, nutritious pellets for deer the animals can ring up a pretty hefty tab. Last year the 1,200 or so elk that frequented the feed sites consumed 855 tons of hay, Miguez said. That's the biggest feed bill since 1992-93, the most recent hard winter in Northeastern Oregon.
Miguez and his two-person crew started feeding on Nov. 22, 2001, and they were still tossing out bales in the middle of April. This season, though, there is not yet a noticeable dent in the Wildlife Area's 780-ton supply.
"We're not feeding anything right now," Miguez said last week. "Normally we'd be feeding by this time."
During the week of Dec. 9, when the season's storm put down 10 inches of snow at the Wildlife Area headquarters on River Lane west of North Powder, about 50 elk ambled in to the nearby Anthony Creek feed site. They stayed for a day and a half, eating a bit of hay, but soon returned to the
"The snow's gone, and so are they," Miguez said.
Last year the snow that arrived early stayed late, a fact Miguez's statistics illustrate dramatically. In December 2001, for example, the Wildlife Area distributed 216 tons of hay about $800 worth per day, and far above the December average of 50 to 60 tons. This December's total is barely above zero, and that has greatly eased Miguez's worries about the remainder of the winter.
Every December day in which workers don't put out hay equals one day in the spring when feed will be available if it's needed, he said.
That means that unless the rest of this winter either is abnormally cold or persists well into spring Miguez probably won't have to buy any more hay. Last winter he needed an extra 80 tons.
Although the hay bales that workers set out recently have barely been nibbled at, Miguez said crews will continue to visit the feed sites every couple of days.
If a particular herd decides to move out of the mountains, Miguez must make sure the animals will find ODFW-supplied food before they reach the first ranch.
"We don't want 30 head of elk to show up unexpectedly and bypass a feed site," he said. "They'd be down in someone's haystacks, and once they find that, it's pretty tough to get 'em turned around."