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Know the West

Oregon elk vex landowners and game managers

The herds are wary of recreationalists, unwelcome at the refuge and eating into profits.

 

First, we saw muddy hoof prints, then a busted fence. And then, Barb Green perked up and pointed over my shoulder towards the ridgeline. “Look over on that hill,” said Green, co-manager of Cable Creek Ranch, a nearly 62,000-acre cattle operation located in the foothills of the Blue Mountains in the northeastern corner of Oregon. From afar, the elk looked like a mass of ants moving swiftly across the rolling hills, golden in the late January light.

As more and more people flock to traditional elk habitat on public lands, the ungulates are shifting to private pastures where there are abundant grass and crops. Since the early 2000s, Green and her husband, Adam Green, have noticed a significant increase in the number of elk on their land, eating the grass and damaging the equipment — and taking a considerable bite out of their profits. Now, wildlife managers are struggling to balance the needs of the elk with those of hunters, farmers and ranchers like the Greens.

A herd of elk roam through sagebrush in Oregon. As elk increasingly choose private lands to graze on, new management strategies must be put into place.

White settlers hunted Oregon’s once-abundant elk population nearly to extinction in the late 1800s, prompting state lawmakers to launch efforts to rebuild the herds. In 1912, locals watched eagerly as a herd of 15 elk underwent an arduous two-week journey from Wyoming to Oregon to help repopulate the state. This and other efforts were a huge success: Today, there are approximately 125,000 elk in Oregon, the fifth-largest state population in the country.

Because the state governs elk populations, landowners cannot simply go out and shoot them.

Historically, the ungulates of northeastern Oregon spent May through November up in the rugged Blue Mountains, which stretch through the Umatilla National Forest in northeastern Oregon into southeastern Washington. Only during the winter months would they travel to private lands at lower elevations. But over the past 30 years, their seasonal pattern has shifted. Now, ranchers like Green are seeing elk as early as August. Some are even reproducing on private lands, raising calves to become permanent residents. Because the state governs elk populations, landowners cannot simply go out and shoot them. Instead, they must abide by hunting laws and wildlife management objectives, which consider factors such as habitat availability and the animals’ value as game.

From the Greens’ ranch, I drove at a crawl through a thick fog to G2 Farming LLC, near the Cold Springs National Wildlife Refuge — about 45 miles from the foothills of the Blue Mountains — to see how elk management efforts were faring. Greg Juul, the farm’s co-owner, motioned toward the elk antlers hanging on his office wall. The antlers are pretty to look at, he said, but these animals were never supposed to reside this far from the mountains.

Over the years, however, elk began sheltering in the nearby refuge, which did not allow big-game hunting, and they no longer migrated back to the Umatilla National Forest. The herd — around 400 strong — now inhabits the refuge during the day and grazes on farmers’ crops at night, causing around $700,000 in annual losses. To reduce elk numbers to zero, the management objective, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife collaborated with local landowners, hunters and other groups to open hunting in the refuge and surrounding private lands. The dead animals are then processed and distributed by a nonprofit to people in need.“I do believe we’re kind of on the leading edge of developing opportunities that benefit everyone,” said Juul.

But the same hunting strategy cannot be applied to the Greens’ property. Because of the area’s proximity to the national forest and prized hunting lands, the Fish and Wildlife Department set a management objective of 5,000 elk, hoping to satisfy both landowners and hunters. Adam Green said that, with a population that size, the herds will inevitably end up on private land, and landowners will be forced to support them. Steve Cherry, Fish and Wildlife district wildlife biologist, said the numbers can far exceed 5,000 in the winter, when more elk migrate to private lands.

In order to better maintain the management objective, this August the department will allow people to hunt resident elk without antlers — meaning females and young males — on private lands with a chronic ungulate problem, including property belonging to the Greens and Greg Juul.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/articles/wildlife-elk-run-the-show-on-oregons-north-coast]

Adam Green thinks this will help, but not enough to stem the approximately $150,000 they lose each year from elk damages. As we walked along, yellow grass crunched under our feet — medusahead grass, he explained, yanking a bunch of it out of the ground. It’s an invasive plant with no nutritional value for livestock that has sprung up across the region; grazing, by livestock and wildlife, can contribute to its spread. In the distance, under the glare of the morning sun, an elk herd continued to feed. We like animals, and we like elk, and we like wildlife,” Green said, “but why should we shoulder that huge burden of feeding them?”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that livestock and wildlife, not just elk, contribute to the spread of medusahead grass.

Helen Santoro is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.