Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Eddie Miguez was expecting the elk, and they didn’t disappoint him.

The big animals are nothing if not reliable in their reaction to snowstorms and frigid temperatures.

Miguez is starting his 18th winter managing the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Elkhorn Wildlife Area, a network of 10 sites along the eastern base of the Elkhorn Mountains where his crew of five distributes hundreds of tons of alfalfa hay each winter to more than 1,000 elk and several hundred deer.

Over nearly two decades, Miguez has studied the habits of elk, particularly the sort of weather that persuades the animals to forego their natural forage for human handouts of alfalfa.

“If they can make it out there on their own, that’s where they prefer to be, on that natural forage base,” Miguez said.

And until last week, when a couple of snowstorms dumped a foot or more in the Elkhorns and the temperature plunged below zero, the elk were thriving.

Even with several inches of snow on the ground, the green grass that sprouted during the mild autumn made for a readily accessible meal for elk, Miguez said.

But by last weekend, with the snow reaching depths more typical of December, the elk started their seasonal pilgrimage.

At the Anthony Creek feed site, near the Elkhorn Wildlife Area headquarters about nine miles west of North Powder on North Powder River Lane, the number of elk more than doubled from around 40 to more than 90, Miguez said.

The population at other feed sites also rose by similar proportions.

As of Wednesday, the Wildlife Area crew was on its regular winter schedule, which means they drive every day to each feed site and make sure there’s an ample supply of hay.

That consistency is essential to the Wildlife Area fulfilling its purpose.

ODFW started the project in 1971 not to spare elk from starvation, but rather to keep the animals from marauding cattle ranchers’ haystacks in the Baker, North Powder and Bowen valleys.

The agency set up feed sites at spots where, ideally, the elk and deer will reach the state-supplied hay before they get to the private stacks.

Over the decades, the animals have become accustomed to the feeding sites and, in the curious way that animals have of passing on such knowledge, the herds return each winter.

Miguez and his crew typically continue feeding into March, although the length of the season depends on the severity of the winter.

The Wildlife Area’s larder is well-stocked in any case, with about 1,150 tons of hay stockpiled.

“All the barns are full,” Miguez said. “It’s business as usual, and we’re ready.”

In addition to keeping elk and deer from raiding ranchers’ haystacks, the Wildlife Area gives residents and visitors a chance to watch elk that are far less skittish than is typical for the species.

The two best viewpoints are at the Anthony Creek site, where there’s a parking area and an informational kiosk, and at the southernmost site, along Old Auburn Road about 10 miles southwest of Baker City.

The Auburn feeding site is about 3 miles west of Highway 7.

The Wildlife Area is closed to the public between Dec. 1 and April 10, but the roadside viewpoints are open year-round.

More information about the Wildlife Area is available online at dfw.state.or.us/resources/visitors/elkhorn_wildlife_area/index.asp