By JAYSON JACOBY
This scene, from 2007, is a common one most winters at the base of the Elkhorn Mountains. But this winter a lack of snow has kept elk away from feeding sites.
Alice Trindle has never seen elk act this way.
Neither has Eddie Miguez.
Dick Humphreys has.
But that was 35 years ago.
And it happened only one winter.
What the elk are doing — or rather what they aren’t doing, and haven’t been doing since early December — is eating free food.
It’s good stuff, too — tasty and nutritious alfalfa hay.
It’s not happenstance that the elk’s disdain for hay has coincided with an abnormal scarcity of snow.
In a typical winter — which is to say, every winter except one in at least the past 40 — elk congregate at the Elkhorn Wildlife Area, a series of state-run feeding sites along the eastern base of the Elkhorn Mountains, to gobble hay.
And these hefty animals — a mature bull can go 800 pounds — can get through a heap of alfalfa.
In December 2010, for instance, the crew from the Elkhorn Wildlife Area, which is operated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, consumed 245 tons of hay, said Miguez, who has managed the Wildlife Area since 1998.
That’s slightly above average for the month.
The state agency set up the feed sites in 1971 to keep elk from marauding ranchers’ haystacks in the valleys.
In the December just ended, when only scant amounts of snow fell, Miguez’s staff doled out just 55 tons of alfalfa.
And some of that was still there, untouched, two weeks after the bales were tossed from a truck.
“The elk just aren’t acting very hungry right now,” Miguez said.
Which has left Trindle’s business a bit, well, famished.
Trindle and Susan Triplett operate T&T Wildlife Tours. Their horse-drawn wagon hauls paying passengers to the feeding site along Anthony Creek, near the Wildlife Area headquarters about eight miles west of North Powder.
Riders watch the elk, many of them literally close enough to reach out and touch, while Trindle and Triplett talk about the animals’ habits.
The tours usually start in early December and continue through February.
But this week Trindle and Triplett were forced to temporarily postpone tours.
“We have never had a winter quite like this one in our 21-year history of feeding the elk and offering the horse-drawn wagon rides,” Triplett said in a press release. “They apparently are foraging just fine on their own and are waiting to entertain the public until the snow gets a bit deeper.”
Trindle said elk showed up on just two days this season — and on one of those days there were just eight elk.
Typically, from 50 to 150 elk gather at the Anthony Creek feeding site.
Although this winter is unique in both Trindle’s and Miguez’s experience, Humphreys’ history with elk goes back a ways further.
He worked as ODFW’s district wildlife biologist for Baker County from 1966 until he retired in 1995.
Humphreys, who still lives in Baker City, also was instrumental in creating the Elkhorn Wildlife Area.
Since the state started feeding elk in 1971, he said, in only one winter were the elk similarly reluctant to feed on state-supplied alfalfa.
That was 1976-77.
Oregon endured one of its worst droughts in the past 75 years.
Humphreys recalls that when he and other biologists conducted an elk census in January 1977, they found elk as high as 7,000 feet in the Elkhorns.
“There was just no reason for them not to be up there,” he said.
In a normal winter there’s ample reason for elk to avoid such altitudes — specifically, snow that’s several feet deep.
When snow is either absent or shallow, though, elk can get to the grasses and forbs that constitute their normal diet.
And so long as that “natural feed” is available, Miguez said, most elk prefer that meal even over the protein-rich alfalfa that his crew dishes out.
This winter’s weird weather brings a couple of benefits, Miguez said.
First, the elk should be in fine fettle come spring.
This advantage accrues even more so to deer, the elk’s much smaller cousins, and consequently more vulnerable to harsh weather.
During hard winters — 1992-93 and 1984-85 are two relatively recent examples — hundreds of deer can die in Baker County.
The combination of sub-zero temperatures and deep snow, which in effect locks up natural food sources, can prove lethal. Deer and other wild animals need to eat quite a lot of food merely to maintain their body temperature in arctic conditions.
This winter is yet a youngster, of course.
Miguez said the elk hordes will surely show up if the weather turns.
Trindle hopes so.
“I have all the trust in the world we’ll still get a winter,” she said. “We have group tours planned for February, and we’re hoping those will be right on schedule.”