NACHES, Yakima County – The bighorn sheep know when it’s lunch time. Would you expect any less from a creature with a four-part stomach?
Once distant specks against the snow, the California bighorn filed down the hillside at about 10:30 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning, marching in such an orderly row that any elementary-school teacher would have been proud.
Three lurking coyotes wandered off, perhaps cowed by the number of sheep, which rose to more than 100.
From behind a tall fence, a small crowd of people inspected the creatures with binoculars or telephoto lenses.
Two eagles circled above – one golden and one bald – before landing a few hundred feet up on the hillside. A lamb didn’t make it through the winter. The raptors would feast, too.
A few minutes later, a Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, or WDFW, pickup pulled through the gate keeping animals away from the roadway and Yakima’s orchards. A worker tossed bundles of alfalfa.
Any semblance of order devolved as the animals jostled for food.
Up above, the golden eagle began to tear flesh from the lamb’s carcass, occasionally fluffing its wings.
Who needs to watch “Planet Earth” when you’ve got this drama, on display all winter?
Nature – even its ugly parts – makes for a compelling scene at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, which offers an uncommonly intimate view of animals fed during the winter by the state wildlife agency.
The bighorn sheep are merely an appetizer for tourists, though. Nearby, wild elk make a yearly pilgrimage to the area’s visitor center, which sits amid the wintry splendor of Central Washington shrub steppe about 15 miles northwest of Yakima.
“It’s about the only place in the country where you can drive up in your vehicle and see wild elk in front of you,” said Ross Huffman, who has managed the wildlife area for nearly seven years. There, the public can board military-surplus trucks for free guided tours of the elk feeding area, hosted by WDFW.
Since the 1980s, the agency has been feeding the elk at Oak Creek, Huffman said. When it begins to snow each year, the elk migrate to the valley to receive their 8- to 10- pound ration of alfalfa each day.
Between 500 to 1,000 elk are usually hanging out in the valley at feeding time.
En masse, their muscular, tawny frames make for a surprising sight against the snowy canyons and ridges from which they descend.
Don’t mistake Oak Creek for an ungulate resort, though. Nobody’s leaving any fatter. WDFW feeds the elk just “enough to get by,” Huffman said, and to prevent them from damaging nearby crops.
Ever since 1913, when about 50 Rocky Mountain elk were moved from Yellowstone National Park to the Yakima area, there has been tension between the animals and local orchardists and farmers.
“An elk can strip a tree in nothing flat,” explained Bob Wurl, a volunteer at Oak Creek for about seven years.
Along with an 8-foot fence, the feeding program keeps elk at higher elevations than would be their historical winter range, which is now occupied by orchards and rural Upper Yakima Valley communities.
The elk typically linger until March, when snow melts and vegetation begins to sprout. Except for the visitor’s center, the wildlife area’s land remains closed to people throughout the winter and until May 1.
Until then, they put on quite the show.
At about 1:30 p.m., a WDFW worker drives a feeding truck through the area. It’s equipped with a conveyor belt that drops one-ton bales of hay about 100 feet apart from another.
Once the hay hits the snow-covered ground, a crowd of elk will surround it and begin to chew. Sometimes, the cow elk skirmish, lifting up on their hind legs and whirring their front feet at one another as if they were trying to dog paddle. Bull elk, who sport tremendous, branching antlers, need only a nudge to get their way.
Each mature animal weighs from 300-900 pounds. If you need proof of their heft, a scale inside the visitor’s center weighs whatever elk is munching its food by the window.
Volunteers and regular visitors become rather attached to the giant creatures. Some claim to recognize returning elk visitors from year to year.
That Saturday, more than 100 people watched from behind a fence as the members of the Yakima herd hung around. Volunteers loaded 16 people at a time into military-surplus vehicles to drive into the field for a closer look.
The ride was surprisingly smooth, and the elk treated the military vehicle as more of a nuisance than an invasionary force.
If it hadn’t been 36 degrees, it might have felt like a safari. The military vehicle’s open walls and the elk’s proximity made for easy photos. Calves could be heard squealing for their mothers.
Kids pointed out their favorite elk. Parents snapped photos.
Craig Baird, a retired Yakima Police Department officer leading our tour, pointed out some of the bigger bull elk, with six or seven points on their branch antlers.
“You never get tired of looking at them,” he said.