Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Mike Lattin doesn’t want this spring’s soft breezes to spread the stench of animal carcasses across Baker County’s Panhandle.

That prospect prompted Lattin, who lives in Richland, about 41 miles east of Baker City, to take action. Since late December he has devoted much of his time, and some of his money, to feeding deer and elk in the eastern half of the county, where crusty snow lies deep during the county’s hardest winter since 1992-93.

The campaign has raised about $14,500 through a GoFundMe account over the past 21 days, exceeding the goal of $14,000.

That money, combined with about $5,000 from the Halfway chapter of the Oregon Sportsman’s Association, has bought about 100 tons of grass hay that Lattin and several dozen volunteers have been distributing to about 1,000 elk and 1,200 to 1,500 deer.

Lattin believes the feeding effort, which he expects will continue for several more weeks despite the recent thaw, has spared deer and elk herds from a fate he describes as “absolutely catastrophic.”

Lattin thinks as much as 80 percent of the animals in some areas would have died without the handouts of hay.

“I’m quite confident if we keep it up we will have a lot of animals still alive to show for it,” he said Wednesday.

Lattin, who owns Eagle Telephone System Inc. and a construction company, said crews are feeding animals in more than 10 places ranging from the Powder River Canyon between Baker City and Richland, north along Eagle Creek and in the Sparta area, and east through Pine Valley to Hells Canyon.

Lattin has been paying employees from his businesses, and using his vehicles, to keep the feeding campaign going.

“I’m out a lot of my own money, but I didn’t want to see a bunch of dead animals this spring and wish I had done something,” Lattin said. “The dollar numbers don’t matter to me right now. What matters to me is the survival of animals. That’s why we live here.”

Lattin said he has been gratified by the support of hundreds of local residents, in financial contributions and in labor.

“The people of these communities stepped up,” he said.

Lattin has coordinated the feeding campaign without the assistance, or indeed the support, of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), the agency that manages the state’s deer and elk herds.

In late January ODFW issued a press release noting that although the agency’s biologists “expect to see increased winter mortality” in big game herds, “emergency feeding of big game is now generally accepted as ineffective and has many negative consequences.”

ODFW did oversee emergency feeding in Baker County in several winters during the 1970s and 1980s, most recently 1988-89. But biologists said they later concluded that those campaigns were not, on balance, successful.

Brian Ratliff, district wildlife biologist at ODFW’s Baker City office, told Baker County commissioners Wednesday that emergency feeding will have a “negligible” benefit for deer.

Lattin said he understands ODFW’s concerns and has adjusted the feeding campaign’s strategy to address some of the potential pratfalls ODFW officials cite.

For instance, volunteers are not setting out hay along Highway 86 because they don’t want deer congr egating next to the two-lane highway, posing a risk to themselves and to drivers.

(Somebody, not associated with the feeding campaign, did set out alfalfa hay near the highway earlier this winter.)

Lattin said he has also spread small amounts of hay at many sites rather than dumping a single large pile. The goal, he said, is to prevent deer and elk from gathering in large herds, which raises the risk of animals transmitting diseases, according to ODFW.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Lattin said.

He has had valuable advice from Richland Mayor Richard Pedersen, a retired wildlife biologist who worked for the Forest Service for 33 years and who supports the feeding campaign.

“Mike and his crew are going to save animals, in my opinion there’s no question about that,” Pedersen said.

Although Lattin unders tands that ODFW does not endorse emergency feeding, he said he heeds the agency’s biologists regarding tactics that minimize the potential risk to the animals he and other volunteers are striving to save.

“We would have appreciated any support they could have given us,” Lattin said, referring to ODFW officials.

Lynn Magnuson, who lives in Baker Valley, said she donated $100 to the GoFundMe account after receiving a phone call from Pedersen in December.

Pedersen called her after a herd of 41 elk fell through the ice on Brownlee Reservoir. Magnuson said she donated because she hoped the feeding effort would allow elk to stay well-fed without their having to cross the ice.