Elk herds horn in on cattle pastures

Ten state-managed feeding sites along the Elkhorn Range in northeastern Oregon are intended to keep elk and deer from venturing onto private lands where they can damage fields, fences and hay barns.

ROSEBURG, Ore. — The mild winter in Western Oregon has produced plenty of green pasture forage for livestock, but some elk herds are also loving it.

The elk rest and relax during the day in nearby forested area and then dine on the green grass during the night.

Many of the ranchers who own those pastures and the livestock are not too pleased with the wildlife intrusion.

“They’re robbing feed that is intended for livestock,” said Veril Nelson of elk. Nelson is the owner of a red Angus operation east of Sutherlin, Ore. His pastures have had many nightly visits from a herd of 50 to 60 elk over the past couple of months.

“One of those mature elk weighs as much as a yearling cow, 600 to 700 pounds,” the rancher said. “They certainly eat as much as a yearling beef animal. They hide in the timber during the day to rest and ruminate, then they’re back out at night, eating enough for a 24-hour meal.”

Tim Miller of Siletz, Ore., runs cattle on five properties. He said he has elk issues at four of those locations.

“If I can’t keep the elk out, I’m a month later getting the cattle onto those pastures,” he said.

Miller is working to keep the elk out. He has built 6-foot electric New Zealand fence around two of the pastures and is in the process of fencing a third property. He has also obtained a hazing permit. Those permits allow ranchers to run or scare off wildlife with vehicles or shotgun blasts.

Craig Herman, a rancher in the Bandon, Ore., area, is chairman of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association’s Private Lands Committee. He said there has been “a lot of frustration” with elk herds on private property. He explained in addition to losing pasture forage, fence damage caused by elk is also a major issue and expense for ranchers.

“One woman in the Newport (Oregon) area is getting out of the cattle business because she can’t keep her fences up due to the elk,” Herman said. “When elk are spooked, they’ll go right through a fence, and then you have the problem of your own cattle getting out.”

Tod Lum, a big game wildlife biologist in the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office in Roseburg, said complaints about elk this winter have been about the same as in the past. He understands the situation ranchers who are trying to turn a profit with their cattle face.

“It’s very attractive for an elk to look at a neon green field and be attracted to it, especially if they’re living in the timber. When they graze on a field all night, the rancher has a valid damage complaint.”

Lum said property owners with at least 40 acres can obtain landowner preference tags to take an antlerless elk and to hopefully discourage the rest of the herd from returning. Additional antlerless elk tags can be obtained by hunters who are approved by the landowner and the biologist.

“That’s a win-win for the hunter and the landowner,” Lum said.

The biologist added a hazing permit is also an option. It allows a landowner to lawfully harass the wildlife, but he said that process has to start early before visiting a field because too much of a habit for elk.

The ranchers and the biologists admit filling the LOP and hunter tags are not easy pasture shoots because after being harassed once or twice, the elk sense daylight and have a tendency to leave the pastures as darkness is fading.

Herman would like to see ranchers compensated for forage and fence damage by the state, but knows that reimbursement is probably not available.

“We have meetings with ODFW and they’re polite and listen,” Herman said. “I appreciate what ODFW is dealing with, but I don’t think those folks appreciate what landowners are dealing with. Forage loss and fence damage are major issues. ODFW needs to manage the wildlife populations better, maybe have longer hunting seasons.”

In eastern Oregon, the mild winter is resulting in less wildlife damage since fewer deer and elk are being driven by bad weather down to the valley pastures and hay barns. Eddie Miguez, who supervises wildlife feed sites in Baker, Union and Wallowa counties, said 10 Elkhorn Range sites managed by the state had about 1,100 animals in early January compared to 2,000 head a year ago during a severe winter.

The feed sites are along traditional migratory routes and are intended to intercept and stop the animals before they reach private ranches.

Justin Primus, assistant wildlife biologist in ODFW’s Baker City office, said his district has had “virtually no elk damage.

“But this has been our mildest winter since 2008,” he added.

Leonard Erickson, the district wildlife biologist for Union County, agreed that wildlife numbers in the valleys and any resulting damage are down this winter compared to a year ago.

Nelson said wildlife officials and forestry representatives need to work together to create more forage in the forest for wildlife. He said that would involve some logging, some prescribed burning and replanting.

“In the old growth forest, there is no forage, nothing to eat, so those animals come down to the pastures,” the rancher said. “We tend to manage for one species, whether threatened or endangered, and that results in managing against all other species.”

Nelson said about 1½ miles east of his ranch, another herd of 50 to 60 elk have been regular visitors to the pastures of another ranch.

“The bottom line is we have to have feed in the mountains,” he added. “Fifteen years ago there were no elk on my place and now we’ve got up to 60 because the forest is not being managed for multiple use.”

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