YAKIMA – With snow beginning to fall in the Cascades, it won’t be long before hungry elk start making their way to lower elevations looking for ways to survive what’s expected to be another cold, wet winter.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife will be ready to feed the state’s largest herd and in the process protect valuable agriculture and create an incredible sight for onlookers at the Oak Creek Feeding Station west of Naches.
Even with the Yakima herd down by about 2,500 from last year to fewer than 8,500, according to February surveys, gathering the resources to provide 8 to 10 pounds of hay per elk per day takes plenty of time and effort.
“We’ve already got quite a bit of hay delivered,” Oak Creek Wildlife Area manager Greg Mackey said. “I’m not sure that we have enough here to get us through the winter, but we’ve got about 120 tons of hay here.”
Those bales stacked high outside don’t include the hay filling the barn behind Mackey’s office, which was left over from last winter’s extended feeding season.
Across the region’s seven feeding sites, the department generally tries to gather about 2,500 tons of hay before winter weather makes it more expensive to acquire and transport, said Wenas Wildlife Area manager Cindi Confer-Morris.
Distributing the hay each day requires significant manpower, especially at Oak Creek, the only site where onlookers can drive up to see hundreds of elk on a daily basis. Volunteers offer tours on two 2.5-ton trucks and staff the visitors center, while five paid employees do the loading and distribution, repair equipment or fencing and count elk.
Mackey and his staff oversee four different elk feeding sites, plus the bighorn sheep feeding site at Cleman Mountain off Old Naches Road where they place hay to keep elk from eating sheep pellets. Later this month, Mackey plans to put out notices for two seasonal positions, which will start on Dec. 1 and Dec. 15.
“We try to look for somebody that has some familiarity with driving trucks and operating tractors and hand tools,” Mackey said.
Assistant manager Bruce Berry added the ability to do maintenance is important as well, with all the equipment required to ensure the elk get fed each day. Three 5-ton military trucks put out hay at the headquarters, and they also utilize an F-450 bought with donation money and a 30-year-old Ford flatbed truck.
All the sites need tractors as well, since the wildlife department switched from 100-pound hay bales to 1,500-pound bales more than 15 years ago.
Along with completing repairs on one of the trucks, crews will need to repair any holes in the elk fence caused by flooding or other normal wear and tear.
Fences are checked in the spring and again in the fall when hunting seasons are over, and they’re slowly making a transition from wood to more durable steel posts. About ?7 miles on the Wenas proved its worth by surviving the Wenas Lake Fire this summer.
“A lot of the treatment that they do on the big (wood) posts now is not nearly as effective as when it was much more toxic chemicals that they used and so we’re seeing even as early as five years some of the posts are starting to rot,” Confer Morris said. “So the steel is something that should last upwards of 50 years and be able to take fire.”
Most long range weather forecasts predict this winter will be much like the last, when the region’s feeding sites stayed open longer than any other winter since the department started keeping records in 2002. Feeding operations at the sites began the first half of December and continued through almost the entire month of March.
Surplus from two light winters – Oak Creek didn’t feed elk at all in 2014-15 – kept costs down a year ago despite the need for extra hay, but that won’t be the case this winter. With heavy snow expected once again, Mackey said the department got 300 to 400 tons of donated hay, which still costs $50 per ton to transport, compared to the usual 600 to 800 tons and was also denied state funding for its volunteer program for the first time ever.
“I kind of was in panic mode,” Mackey said. “Being my first year here and then all of a sudden after 20 years of this successful volunteer program, they didn’t get their grant funding.”
The effects of that change for public viewing remains to be seen, but Mackey said it won’t affect the program’s primary goal of keeping elk healthy and out of area crops. Mackey can’t answer the frequent questions from people about when the elk will arrive, but whenever it happens, food will be waiting.
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