December 26, 2001 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife presently has no plans to feed deer and elk in the Grande Ronde Valley.

Old Man Winter, though, will have the last word.

There is no need to feed deer and elk now, said Craig Ely, the agencys northeast region supervisor.

Deer and elk are in good condition and are able to reach food sources, Ely said. This could change quickly if winter conditions worsen.

If we need to gear up (for a feeding program) we will, Ely said.

Presently deer and elk are able to paw through the snow to reach vegetation. If a thick crust of snow develops it could become extremely difficult for elk and deer to get to food sources and feeding would be necessary. A crust can be created by freezing rain or the thawing and freezing of snow.

The ODFW has not had to feed deer and elk in the Grande Ronde Valley since the winter of 1992-93.

The ODFW, however, feeds game at the Elkhorn Wildlife Management Area every winter west of North Powder and at the Wenaha Wildlife Management Area in Wallowa County. Deer and elk are fed at these sites to keep them off agricultural land.

The ODFW is cautious about starting any new feeding programs because once feeding begins it must be continued for the remainder of the winter.

You cant stop and start, Ely said. You cant start and walk away.

Deer and elk become dependent on a feeding site and will stay around it in large concentrations after feeding has ended. The animals are then likely to move in large groups to adjacent private land and cause damage.

The ODFW is also leery of starting a feeding program because it would be expensive. Ely noted that it costs $90 to $95 to feed each elk at the Elkhorn Wildlife Management Wildlife Area over the winter.

If a feeding program were started in the Grande Ronde Valley, several hundred deer and elk would be fed. Sites where elk were fed during the winter of 1992-93 included one on Foothill Road south of La Grande. That site drew about 400 elk each day.

Should a feeding program prove necessary, Ely said that only a small percentage of deer and elk in the Grande Ronde Valley would be helped.

For every animal we would feed, seven to 10 would not be fed, Ely said. We could not save all the