Some Idahoans say largest wildlife feeding program in years too late for elk

A mule deer looks up near a winter emergency feeding station in the Garden Valley area.
A mule deer looks up near a winter emergency feeding station in the Garden Valley area. Idaho Department of Fish & Game

About a month ago, Garden Valley resident Bob Yardley found a dead yearling elk near his mailbox. He said the animal, one of about 50 elk that hang around the Crosstimber Ranch Subdivision a couple of miles east of Banks-Lowman Road, had starved to death.

In the past two weeks, three more young elk have died. That was after Yardley and his neighbors bought 4 to 5 tons of hay and began daily feedings.

He and other area residents are upset with state wildlife officials and say they should have done more, and done it sooner, for the animals amid this unusually harsh winter.

Idaho Fish and Game expects to spend $625,000 to feed big-game animals this winter — nearly double the largest expenditure on record.

“There are some real issues up here with dying elk,” said Yardley, who has lived in Garden Valley for 14 years. “I can’t tell you if it’s starvation or whether it’s from the cold, or a combination of both because they don’t have any energy to move.”

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is already spending more than it has in years on an extensive emergency feeding program to aid deer and elk across Southern Idaho.

About 110 feeding sites are reaching more than 10,000 deer, nearly 10,000 elk and about 100 pronghorn. That represents less than 2 percent of the state’s deer and less than 10 percent of the elk.

The agency expects to spend $650,000 to feed big-game animals this winter, nearly double the $387,000 spent in 2008 and more than the $600,000 spent in 2002 for food and to protect haystacks from animals. Fish and Game had budgeted $229,000 for this winter. The extra spending may be covered by a winter feeding fund that brings in $200,000 a year from a 75-cent fee included in the cost of deer, elk and pronghorn tags.

Emergency feeding around Garden Valley began about a month ago, when crusty snow made it difficult for deer to reach their natural forage, said Dino Hugon, a Garden Valley resident and volunteer member of a regional winter feeding advisory committee that reports to Fish and Game.

“Feeding this year was kind of a no-brainer. We knew it was going to happen,” Hugon said.

The feeding is taking place at 22 sites scattered along the 35-mile Banks-Lowman Road corridor. Elk are fed alfalfa-based pellets, while deer are given pellets made from grain.

While elk have digestive systems that can more easily adapt to a change to pellet food, deer have a harder time. Their four-part stomachs hold microbes necessary to digest food, and those microbes adapt throughout the year to the deer’s changing diet. It takes several weeks for things to adjust, and deer can die of starvation even if their stomachs are full with undigested pellets or hay.

But around Garden Valley, residents say it’s the elk that are suffering most.

“I don’t know why (Fish and Game) didn’t start sooner, because we had a lot of snow early,” said Doug Donley, 85. “They’re just making a little effort to make it look like they’re doing something to please the public. And a lot of people believe that.”

Policies limit feeding, ‘a last resort’

Emergency feeding is a complicated and sometimes controversial issue, said Rick Ward, regional wildlife manager for Fish and Game. Such an effort last took place in Idaho during the winter of 2007-08.

“Winter feeding is kind of a last resort,” he said.

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission sanctions only limited supplemental winter feeding programs. The department is authorized to feed big-game animals for four reasons: to prevent excessive deaths that would affect herd recovery, for public safety, after forest fires, or to prevent damage to private property when other measures are impractical or ineffective.

In the late 1990s, Idaho’s feeding program was broader, serving 2,000 elk from 26 winter feeding stations. But big-game herds, especially elk, are susceptible to infectious diseases that can be spread when large numbers of animals come together to be fed. Concerns by state agriculture officials that bovine brucellosis could spread among elk and then to cattle led to the elimination of all but emergency winter feeding.

Overgrazing by the larger herds near feeding stations was also a concern.

Hugon, who works for the Boise County Road Department, is one of two Garden Valley-area residents to serve on the feeding advisory committee. They keep an eye on the snow depth, watch how deer and elk handle the terrain, and swap information with Fish and Game.

Other factors are also at play, he said. Local winter range has shrunk over the past century, and a noxious weed, rush skeleton weed, has choked out other plants used as food by big-game animals.

“Deer and elk need bitterbrush,” Hugon said. “Our bitterbrush is gone.”

Animals that die of starvation are almost always undersized as winter approaches, Ward said. They’re often more visible to the public because they’re more likely to head downhill to conserve energy and end up near roads and clearings, he said.

Most of the deer and elk that perish over the winter die in February and March, when conditions are generally harsher, he said. Those dying off in January are typically in weaker condition already.

“It’s unlikely that animals dying that early in the winter would have made it through even an average winter,” Ward said.

Yardley acknowledged that a certain number of big-game animals die each winter, but he contends that Fish and Game made matters worse by not starting emergency feeding sooner.

“I’ve lived up here 14 years and I have never seen the congregation of elk just sitting around or laying under trees,” he said. “They’re not moving around and they’re not moving around because of the depth of the snow and how cold it is. They’re not able to move to get to feed, or have feed to get to, because the snow is so deep.”

Yardley said his neighborhood got 10 feet of snow, compared to 3 to 4 feet most years.

Neighbors have become attached to the elk they see throughout the year. That makes it especially painful to see them die, Dyann Worley said.

“It’s pretty amazing living up there with the wildlife,” Worley said.

What do the numbers show?

More mule deer fawns have died so far this season near Garden Valley than in a normal winter, according to Fish and Game statistics for collared animals.

Statewide, the agency monitors 1,500 collared deer and elk of all ages.

Three of five collared mule deer fawns from Garden Valley to Lowman have died. Their statewide death rate this season so far is 25 percent. Fish and Game spokesman Roger Phillips said he doesn’t expect the disparity to continue, noting again the annual late-winter peak in deaths.

“We are expecting higher mortality. It may have started in the Garden Valley area a little quicker than in some other areas, but we don’t think we’re going to sustain those higher numbers of survival — especially with the fawns — throughout the winter,” Phillips said.

The area in recent years might have seen higher average deer fawn mortality than the rest of Idaho — 49 percent of collared fawns died between 2006 and 2013. That compares to 41 percent statewide, going back to 1998, when the the collaring program for mule deer began, Phillips said.

In 2006, the worst year, 85 percent of fawns in Garden Valley and Lowman died.

The overall elk death rate is below the region’s recent average; 10 of 30 collared elk calves in the area have died this winter. Statewide, mortality is at 11 percent.

But the average local mortality was 54 percent from 2008-2011, the years for which Garden Valley data was available this past week.

Last year, 26 percent of collared elk calves statewide died.

Questions over private feeding, too

Feeding of big-game animals is prohibited in several Eastern Idaho counties to reduce the spread of brucellosis. Otherwise, although there are no regulations against the practice, state officials don’t endorse it.

“The Idaho Department of Fish and Game strongly urges residents not to feed deer and elk for several reasons,” biologist Craig White said.

In the past, private feeding operations set up too close to livestock and stored crops. In other cases, they were near roads, increasing vehicle strikes. There have also been problems with predators being attracted to feeding locations.

Yardley said Fish and Game officials did not discourage him and his neighbors from feeding the elk. But they warned that the elk might continue coming to the neighborhood in the future. That, Yardley said, was already the case even before feeding began.

The neighbors have put out three bales of hay daily and have enough for another 10 days.

Meanwhile, Fish and Game will continue feeding animals until they start to disperse, White said.

“That can occur before official spring, if hillsides open up and the animals start to forage on natural vegetation,” he said.

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