Wednesday May 4, 2016
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I know a little about elk because I have admired them as a beautiful wild animal ever since I was a kid in New York City who saw them in a zoo. I've been "studying" elk on and off ever since way back then, and have been learning about them ever since, partly because I chose them as a special study that I did during my college years. I'm glad I did that. It helps me to understand what to do--and what not to do--where elk are concerned now that I'm here among them.
One of the major drawing cards which brought me here to the Rim, in fact, was the hope that I might be able to catch occasional sight of an elk in the wild. That hope has been overwhelmingly fulfilled here in Pine, but I still can't get enough of them, even though during the September and October rut, I see or hear them literally every night.
So first, a quick opinion. I do not think the dead elk recently found are the result of poisoning. And I'm fairly sure about what we discover when we have a chance to examine a freshly dead animal.
To begin with, although our elk are large, healthy looking animals, they are a great deal more fragile than they appear. One reason is that they are not native to North America. They were here when we got here and so we tend to think of them having been here forever, but both they and the Indians came across a land bridge from Asia called Beringia, and the elk have been here for less than 20,000 years, a mere drop in the bucket where nature is concerned.
The result is that Elk are susceptible to a number of infectious diseases, some of which can be transmitted to livestock, by the way. In fact, a recent necropsy study of captive elk in Pennsylvania attributed the cause of death in 33 out of 65 cases to either gastrointestinal parasites or bacterial infections, including 12 cases of pneumonia.
The danger of such infections increases as our elk herds increase in size, pressing the animals closer together and resulting in increased transmission of disease among them. Over 100 years ago, the fear that we might lose our precious elk entirely led to the creation of the National Elk Refuge In Wyoming, where elk were considered so precious they were artificially fed during harsh winters (elk suffer worse from hard winters than from dry summers, by the way). However, feeding had unintended consequences--outbreaks of diseases like brucellosis and the more deadly chronic wasting disease, CWD, neither of which are a problem here. As a result the elk will no longer be fed in the National Refuge, even though it seems cruel to see them die off in some winters.
Nature is harsh. She has her own rules. What we may be seeing when we find increasing numbers of dead elk in the forests indeed calls for a necropsy so we can know for certain why they died. But don't get too exited just yet; the chances are very good that the findings will show that the deaths, however sad, are nature's way of adjusting for the fact that we now have an incredible 35,000 elk in our state, almost half as many as were left in the entire nation back in the lowest population year--1912.
As for feeding the elk, they are ruminants like cattle and so have the four stomachs needed to graze like cattle, but they love things like juicy new stems, lush green leaves, and--especially--your decorative plants. Someone I know just lost some great big sunflowers that way. I could have warned her; elk dote on them (and all forbs).
So if you want to "feed" the elk just plant things they like--outside your fence if possible--and stand back. If you have an open field behind your house and don't mind sharing the view with an animal that is definitely not a pet, toss a handful of clover seeds around each spring. Elk also dote on clover. I can see why; the stuff tastes pretty good to me.
Or try my "system" (which was a complete accident). In my backyard are four large apple trees. In some years they are so laden with apples their branches are in danger of snapping under their own weight and I have to wheel a load of fallen apples out of the yard daily (I put them by the creek where they disappear every night thanks to javelina, deer, and other critters).
In other years I get no more than 10 or 15 wheelbarrow loads all summer. In a year like this one, with a late cold snap and a very dry spring I could pile the whole load in one bushel basket--if the elk and birds didn't get them all first, which they have, good for them.
I have a fence out back. It's just three feet high. The elk are too shy to jump it in daylight in a well populated area, but they can practically step over that fence at night. Every night in a good summer, four to six females gorge themselves on apples. The male stands guard outside the fence, poor guy. On a moonlit night it's a sight I never tire of (from inside the house where I don't disturb their feeding; I know my place).
I own the place during the day; the elk own it at night. Raccoons too. And an occasional skunk. We get along just fine. Squirrels have special daylight privileges--also wheat crackers, hand fed, and are the only critters I ever feed. Hasn't been a territory problem in 14 years.
Is someone poisoning the elk? I doubt it. The sad truth is that they are probably dying because we have a temporary overpopulation problem, which brings them in closer contact with each other, resulting in the spread of diseases. That and a lack of good browse is a serious problem for all the animals this year.
Are the elk eating everything in sight his year? Including the plants in people's yards? You bet! I have a few neighbors who are feeling very put out about the whole thing. And I can see why, but I don't think they're getting out the strychnine in revenge. It's just one of those years. Not much good juicy stuff out there and so the elk are hungry. We can go to Bashas; they can't.
To someone like me who puts spiders outside to play, the death of any animal is a tragedy, but I truly don't think it's time to start pointing your finger at your friends and neighbors, especially if you have a green thumb--it might look like a nice juicy sprout to an elk.
Just my opinion.
I have to agree with the Game and Fish officer about it not being a coincidence with so many of them being found dead.I have lived in the area for many many years and have never heard of this many dying in one spot before. Well other than the car vs elk accident on 260 when a driver plowed into a herd of them and killed numerous elk. They are magnificent animals and are wonderful to watch. Something is making them sick and causing their demise. And as Game and Fish Officials stated in the article whether it is intentional or unintentional something is causing this. The elk, deer and javelina have eaten plants out of people's yards for many many years not just this year. It will be interesting to see what is the outcome of this mystery will be.
Thanks for your comments; they are well taken.
I'd like to point out, though that I never said I thought the elk die-off was a coincidence. I too believe that the die-off may be quite large this year, but I think it is too early to start pointing the finger at people. Elk die-off is nothing new; it happens in low-browse years, and this year has been a misfortunate one where browse and grazing is concerned.
If I go by my backyard alone, there was nothing in the way of anything green until after we began our summer rains. To any animal which grazes that is a tragedy.
For 14 years I have kept a daily record of rainfall, snowfall, and temperatures, and I can tell you that this year is unusual. Last fall we had good rainfall, but January and February were very dry. We also had a very small winter snowfall, only 13 inches, which melted right off. Spring gave us no relief; there was no rain at all. It wasn't until July that the grass and other ground cover sprang up, three full months late.
The summer rains have been quite good, but very late. My trees this years have produced literally no apples, the blackberry bushes along the creek produced tiny, half-dry fruit, and the browse along the creek has been virtually nothing. We humans barely notice this kind of thing, but to animals that rely on grazing and browse it is a starvation situation.
That coupled with the fact that a herd count for this year is bound to show large numbers because it is hard winters that kill off elk and we had a warm winter. Add that to the crowding together caused by a lack of grazing and browse, as clearly shown by the fact that the elk have invaded backyards all along the Rim, and it seems likely that the number of disease-caused deaths is going to take a large jump upward.
I can tell you this much: In all the years I have been here I have never seen the elk so low down in such large numbers at this time of year. Normally, when the summer months come, the elk move up to their natural summer range, which is at 7,000 feet or above. It is only in winter, when heavy snows cover their browse, that we see them down here in the large numbers we are seeing them this year.
(a bit more)
I agree with you that it will be "interesting" to see what the outcome of a necropsy done on a freshly dead animal will be, but I sincerely doubt that it will turn up anything except the usual deaths from gastrointestinal parasites or bacterial infections.
And although this is only a personal opinion, I must say that I feel that the number of elk found is not particularly large. Roaming the hills up here in former years I have myself observed dead elk, usually two or three a year, somewhere along the trails I tramped. In fact, I have never seen a late summer/early fall that didn't show a few dead elk. Some years I've seen as many as six or seven in the small area I covered. The report that started all this conjecture merely said that "in the last month at least four have been found" and that "reportedly" three other elk turned up dead in July. That's only 7 elk out of the many thousands that roam the area, not a large number.
Could it be that someone poisoned them? Of course, but it seems more likely that the magnificent animals we all so love are subject to the same rule we are: Any animal which too successfully overpopulates the land is in the end the loser.
Sad, but true.
Wouldn't it be great if we could somehow find a way to stabilize, not just the elk population, but our own, leaving the wild to remain wild without the inevitable penalty placed upon us by nature?
I sometimes think that Mother Nature has a cruel streak.
I read something a few minutes ago, maybe a letter to the editor about elk not being able to get into the Rim Club because it was fenced. What a joke. If they knew anything about elk they would know that the fence we can see from the highway will not keep them out. If they are talking about the log fence or whatever you want to call it. Elk can jump that with no problem. Is there another fence that can't be seen from the highway?
10 or 12 ft. fence may keep them out.
Many years ago all the elk died off here and then some idiot decided we needed to have some imported. The elk we have now are not native to the area. We need to let Mother Nature take care of the animals.
That's true, Pat. The elk died off here and had to be brought back. It was part of a big program like the one for the buffalo. People were worried they were going to die out altogether.
Actually, as I mentioned before, elk are an Asian species. They came here over the land bridge while it existed for a while. There are plenty of them in Asia, and they are less prone to diseases over there, so I am told.
I flipped over to the letter and read the one you are talking about. I haven't actually seen any of the areas discussed; they are not places of interest to me. But the writer seemed to know what he was talking about regarding the fences, and I took note of the fact that the editor verified that what he said about some other things was correct, but didn't challenge that comment, so I am inclined to think he's right. He is dead right about the wasting disease. Hasn't been seen here yet, as I said in my first post, but could easily be carried here.
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