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Sharing the Bounty of Spring – Providing Food and Shelter for Wildlife, Whether We Want To or Not

This is an exciting time of year here on the ranch. The plants, the animals, and the people are all starting to recover from a difficult winter. Grass is sending up cautious spears to look around and some early forbs are getting busy too. We humans are trying to shift from rubber boots and heavy coats to flip-flops and shorts.

John and friends from the days he worked in the islands.

Well, let’s not get carried away.

One of the most fun things about early spring is that our local birds and mammals start acting goofy, showing off. Our headquarters property is home to several hundred wild turkeys, and they seem to like nothing better than getting in big gangs and strutting around, most often near the highway. This, of course, causes all kinds of traffic snarls. Same goes for the coyotes. They’re done with the mating dance by now, but soon we’ll get to watch the pups tearing around, barking, yipping, and biting each other. And all the rest, the hawks, eagles, falcons, egrets and herons – they’re quite a cast of characters. Some days our pastures look like a runway at an animal fashion show. And besides the free entertainment, even combined, I doubt these critters eat more than a wheelbarrow full of grass each day.

And then there are the elk…

Our elk are classified as the Rocky Mountain version, although the dividing line is the interstate highway, only ten miles west of here. The Roosevelt sub-species live on the other side of the freeway. Maybe I should be thankful for that, as Roosevelt are even larger than the Rocky type.

Elk (Wapiti) are perhaps the most magnificent, iconic animals of the west. They stand five feet tall at the withers, about 15 hands, but they look a heck of a lot bigger than that! Males can weigh in at about 700 pounds, and females at 500 or more. They have a set of ivory teeth where their canines should be. Ivory! And the bulls have antlers that grow to unbelievable proportion.

I love to see elk here, as they are still kind of exotic for me – unusual, that is. During the Great Depression of the 1930s the people here-abouts were hungry, and they had guns. The result was a nearly complete decimation of the elk population in the lower elevations. Remnant herds survived in the high mountains, but I don’t believe I saw an elk down here in farm country until the 1980s, and even then, very rarely. Nowadays, it seems like there are roaming herds that show up when hunting season is over and stay down here all winter.

The damage they do is pretty modest during the winter. People complain about fence damage, but my experience with elk is that if you don’t bother them (chase them with motorcycles, shoot at them, holler and scream, etc.) they stay pretty calm, hopping over fences at will. In places where they tend to congregate, I usually open all the gates and let them traipse around wherever they want. Generally speaking, they begin moving back uphill as soon as the first days of green-up occur. Well, usually.

This year I noticed that one of our rental properties seemed to be hosting an unusual number of elk, maybe twice as many as usual. Normally, we don’t winter any cattle on that place, and we leave a pretty fair amount of residual grass. So, this makes it pretty attractive wintering ground for elk. Fair enough. But this year, a month before our projected turnout date of April 1st, I noticed that the elk were still hanging out. And there were a lot of them. As the month went on, I stopped to look at grass (and elk) every week or so, and the news got no better. The elk were systematically grazing across the entire ranch, occupying a different pasture each day. In effect, they were running sort of a rotational grazing scheme, which I guess is good, but they were definitely keeping the entire ranch in Phase I growth.

Here’s a chart to help you figure Animal Unit Equivalents for a variety of livestock and wildlife. Just click to download. Thanks to NRCS Texas for the info!

I think elk and bovine cattle are very similar in terms of the amount of forage they consume. As it turns out an average size elk is going tocxonsume approximately the same amount of forage as the replacement heifers I was planning to graze on that ranch. So now I am left with 57 elk grazing the first month’s worth of forage that I had planned for 40 or 50 replacement (bovine) heifers. The loss of a month of high quality grazing in early spring, coupled with the fact that our summers are becoming hotter, dryer, and earlier, is making me re-evaluate our program at this ranch, or at least re-calculate the budget.

On March 15 I called the custom-grazing client whose replacement heifers were slated to be trucked in here on April 1st, telling him to shift the date to April 15, due to elk trouble. Yesterday, April 4th, I counted 57 elk grazing. This time, I told my client to shift to the 25th, and suggested that was perhaps overly optimistic. No one is happy, I can tell you that. This will not be a great year.

Are there solutions to the elk issue? Maybe. It is possible for the landowners to apply for damage tags that allow them to harvest a few elk. Certainly, killing an elk or two won’t change the grass demand much, but it might encourage the elk herd to move on to a more friendly situation. The problem is, shooting a cow elk in April means dealing with a near-term dead calf when you gut the thing out. Seems like an opportunity to gain some bad Karma, there. I guess you could try to only shoot bulls, but the bulls dropped their antlers a month or more ago, making them difficult to distinguish from cows. And all this aside, the landowners would have to be 100% in favor of shooting the elk. For most of the rental properties we operate on, that would be very unlikely. Turns out, everybody likes to see the elk.

So that’s the news from Oregon. If you have wildlife issues, and maybe solutions, do share them.

Hope you are having a happy, bountiful spring.

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