Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

ying to tempt a herd of confused elk but so far his offer of alfalfa hay hasn’t proved enticing enough.

The trouble, said Miguez, who has been in the elk-luring business for almost 20 years, is that it’s much easier to intercept elk before they reach Baker Valley than to get them to leave once they’re ensconced.

Miguez has managed the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW) Elkhorn Wildlife Area since 1998.

The Wildlife Area, despite its singular name, actually is a series of 10 sites along the eastern base of the Elkhorn Mountains, from Auburn in the south to Shaw Mountain northwest of North Powder, where Miguez and his crew feed more than 1,000 elk, and hundreds of deer, each winter.

ODFW created the Wildlife Area in 1971, but its purpose is not the most obvious one.

The agency’s goal isn’t to spare the elk from starvation, but rather to keep them from gorging on hay that’s supposed to feed ranchers’ cattle.

ODFW set up feeding sites along or near historical elk migration routes between their summer range in the mountains and their traditional wintering grounds in the lowlands.

Because the Elkhorns lack extensive foothills, there is no middle ground, as it were, to serve as winter range for elk.

Generally the strategy is successful, but on occasion an elk herd wanders into the valley before the Wildlife Area workers start distributing what Miguez calls “bait hay.”

They can’t do that until Dec. 1, because most of the Wildlife Area is open to hunting through November and ODFW naturally wants to avoid encouraging elk to congregate during a hunting season.

This year a group of 65 to 70 elk moved into Baker Valley not long before the first rifle elk hunting season in late October, Miguez said.

He said the elk apparently had been in the forests around Salmon Creek and Washington Gulch.

The elk were “chased around” during the hunting season, and as of this week the animals hadn’t moved to a feed site, Miguez said. He suspects these elk would typically winter at the Salmon Creek site, about 10 miles west of Baker City.

“We’ve seen this before,” Miguez said. “The elk aren’t sure which way to go, and it takes a while for them to figure out how to get back (to a feed site).”

Miguez said he saw the herd last week and the elk were moving south, toward Salmon Creek.

But they encountered a group of people who had parked their vehicles, apparently so they could watch the elk, and the animals reversed their course.

The elk have moved around the valley over the past month or so, Miguez said, spending time in the Brown Road, Wingville and Hunt Mountain areas, among others.

ODFW has issued damage tags to some property owners, who can allow people to hunt on their land, said Justin Primus, assistant district wildlife biologist at the agency’s Baker City office.

Across the county, though, there have been complaints about elk damaging farm land this fall compared with last, Primus said.

He attributes that to the comparatively benign weather. A year ago, by contrast, the snow was already deep in the mountains by early December, and the harsh weather encouraged elk to move to lower elevations. But ODFW doesn’t have feeding programs like the Elkhorn Wildlife Area anywhere else in Baker County.

Miguez said he’s confident the Baker Valley herd will eventually find its way to a feed site.

Wildlife Area crews have distributed alfalfa at each of the sites, and as of Wednesday elk had started nibbling at each site except Salmon Creek (which adds credence to Miguez’s theory about where the wandering elk herd will end up).

Last year at this time Miguez and his co-workers were hauling truckloads of hay to the sites every day.

He’s grateful that this winter has had a much gentler beginning.

Although the Wildlife Area laid in a goodly stock of alfalfa — about 1,000 tons — Miguez said elk fare better when they can gradually transition from their normal diet of native vegetation to the nutritious, but much richer, alfalfa hay.

The enzymes in their gut change depending on their food sources, and an abrupt switch from grass to alfalfa can make elk sick or, in rare cases, even kill them.

This is a bigger threat to deer, however.

The Wildlife Area includes one feed site that draws almost exclusively deer — it’s on Antelope Peak near the Anthony Lakes Highway — and workers distribute pellets there rather than alfalfa hay.