February 28, 2002 11:00 pm
INTO THE CHUTE: Elk move through pens in their winter feeding range at Starkey. The elk will be examined for general health. (U.S. Forest Service photo).
INTO THE CHUTE: Elk move through pens in their winter feeding range at Starkey. The elk will be examined for general health. (U.S. Forest Service photo).

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The fence built in the late 1980s was designed to last 30 years.

Less than 15 years later, the fence may come down, and when its dismantled, 10 years of wildlife research will come to a close.

Thats the Bush Administrations plan for the Starkey Experimental Forest, a fixture near the Grande Ronde River southwest of La Grande and an attraction to scientists all over the world. The administrations proposed budget, expected to go to Congress in March, contains no money for Starkey animal research.

The area, all 25,000 acres, is unique in its structure and goals. Controlled studies of the effects of logging, human intrusion and other impacts on deer and elk have been conducted inside the fence, and the habits of cattle have been studied.

In other parts of the world, especially in Africa, fences have been built to manage large animals such as elephants, but only Starkey has a defined study area for specific animals.

Theres no other facility just like it in the world, said Mike Wisdom, a Forest Service biologist.

Nearly 11 years after the research began in 1991, some questions about animal behavior have been answered, but more remain, and researchers fear those will never be answered if the Starkey fence comes down.

Many, but not all, of the wild and domestic animals that live inside the fence wear radio collars, and their movements are tracked 24-hours a day by telemetry, giving scientists exact information about location.

Wisdom said the Pacific Northwest Research Station has probably the largest telemetry data on ungulates (deer, elk and cattle).

During the past 10 years, researchers have learned that deer and elk dont need dense tree cover to stay warm; the methods wild animals use to cope with roads, and the importance of the age and size of breeding bulls in the production of healthy calves.

The earlier research has drawn to a close with the publication of findings and reports to Forest Service and private land managers, but much research is only partly done unpublished and unreported.

Theres a long step from the rigor of testing and getting something going on the ground, said Bruce Johnson, a researcher with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Publication is the foundation on which something can be done.

Johnson said that findings indicating that older, branched bulls produced stronger calves, caused ODFW to change some hunting regulations.

Under the Bush budget proposal, all research activities, including reporting to managers, would end Sept. 30, and the nearly $1.1 million allocated to the Starkey project would go


When the money runs out, a study that will begin this spring of the impacts on deer and elk by ATVs, mountain bikes, hiking and horseback riding will end. Scientists Johnson and Wisdom say that very little can be learned in only a year, and to be viable, the research must continue for a minimum of three years, and preferably longer.

Were taking a risk that the research wont be scientifically credible, Wisdom said. The use of ATVs is one of the most rapidly growing controversies. Starkey is the one place where we could do cause and effect.

Terry Eccles of the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation agreed. The Departments ATV advisory committee has awarded $150,000 to the Starkey research,

You can hope this (Starkey closing) will never become reality, Eccles said, but well have to plan. Well look for sources to continue the study if it does. I hope we wont have to do that.

Eccles said that many ATV organizations and users support the proposed research, and out-of-state groups probably will find the research results valuable.

Weve gotten lots of recognition for this study from other states, he said.

Still to come, beginning during the summer, is a study of the long-range effects of wildlife and livestock grazing on forest and range vegetation, also a controversial issue. Wisdom said the trials would need at least five years, and maybe 10 to 20, to be viable.

Current research into the interaction of elk, deer and cattle will help forest and range managers determine the number of cattle that can be grazed in various areas. Johnson said the project is nearly finished.

Union County Commissioner John Howard said he was surprised by the decision to end Starkey funding. Calling research the highest priority for forest management, he said the loss of Starkey would create a void in making defensible arguments for management.

He said he is also concerned about the potential economic impact caused by the loss of more than seven jobs in Union County. Howard, who will travel to Washington, D.C., for a National Association of Counties meeting, said he hopes to ask Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth to work to restore the Starkey project to the budget.

Howard will also seek support for the station from Oregons delegation to Congress Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, and Republican Rep. Greg Walden. The administration budget faces debate in Congress, and a final decision probably will not be made before the end of summer.

This has been a major investment, Howard said. Several million dollars have been spent in infrastructure to create the experimental station. I dont think this is the time to pull the pin.

Although no plans have been announced to close the La Grande research building on Gekeler Lane, Wisdom and Johnson said they questions whether the Forest Service can continue to pay operational costs. The nearly $1.1 million for Starkey pays about half the buildings costs.