NORTH POWDER, Ore. (AP) — A bull elk swaggers through a curtain of falling snow, shaking his majestic 35-pound antlers as a warning to others in the herd to get out of its way.
The bull ignores a horse-drawn wagon that rolls past, framed against a dark winter forest, and the two humans on board tossing alfalfa to the elk.
"The shocking thing is to see these elk out in the open," says high school soccer coach Anthony Washington, 37, of Baker City who is watching from another T&T Wildlife Tours wagon with his wife, Amanda, and 3-year-old son, Antonio.
About 70 Rocky Mountain elk gather daily at Anthony Creek, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife feeding site at 4,100 feet elevation along the base of northeastern Oregon's craggy Elkhorn Mountains. The department feeds the big animals to prevent them from raiding the haystacks of nearby ranchers.
In the wild, the elk usually vanish the instant they catch sight of a human, especially during hunting season. But most of these animals, in contrast, appear almost at ease around the people who enter the broad, snow-covered meadow to feed and watch them.
Still, about 15 calves aren't yet comfortable with the commotion, and they dash around excitedly in a tight cluster. In another small drama, two cow elk "box" each other, rearing and striking with their forefeet in a brief, bloodless dispute over a broken hay bale tossed from the wagon. Finally realizing there's plenty to go around, they stop fighting.
The herd is likely to balloon in size over the winter as the snow deepens and the mercury falls, said Eddie Miguez, a wildlife department site manager.
Anthony Creek is distinctive from the eight other elk feeding sites scattered along a 45-mile line in the 1,200-acre Elkhorn Wildlife Management Area because the state allows tours.
T&T owners Susan Triplett and Alice Trindle, both of Haines, expect to take 1,500 visitors among the elk this year.
Both women grew up on horseback on ranches in the West. They started the wildlife tours two decades ago, when both were in their mid-30s.
Triplett thinks Anthony Creek may be the best spot in Oregon to view Rocky Mountain elk, the so-called "ghosts of the forest."
T&T's tours operate Saturdays and Sundays through the winter and daily during the Christmas season. On the first tour of each day, they take visitors to the elk in a wheelchair-accessible horse-drawn wagon. Then they unhitch the team and harness the horses to a second wagon loaded with 100-pound alfalfa bales and distribute the hay to the elk. Rehitching to the visitor wagon, they take the people back to their cars.
On a recent day, Trindle is handling the reins of Waylon and Jed, T&T's two obsidian Percheron draft horses. The 10-year-old horses weigh 2,000 pounds each and inscribe a straight path through the milling elk herd as Triplett and Mike Moore, a professional horseshoer living in Haines, cut alfalfa bales and push them off the wagon.
The elk herd ranges from gangly 300-pound calves to magnificent bulls tipping the scales at 1,000 pounds or more. Cow elk often weigh about 650 pounds.
Trindle and Triplett see many of the elk year after year and even give nicknames to some. Among this herd, some elk may live 15 years if they can outwit human hunters, cougars, bears and other predators.
The state established the winter feeding sites after almost three decades of conflict with ranchers who'd grown tired of wintertime elk raids on their haystacks. The Anthony Creek site has been in operation almost 40 years.
Each elk consumes an average 13 pounds of hay per day, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife is prepared to feed up to 800 tons t his winter to 1,700 elk at the nine sites, Miguez said.
Nevertheless, the feeding sites hang in a precarious balance. If a feeding is delayed by blizzard-closed roads or an equipment breakdown, the elk react instantly by taking off to find food elsewhere, he said.
They also might leave if disturbed or frightened by something as mundane as someone jumping off a hay wagon or if a strange pickup the elk don't recognize enters a feeding site, he said. For that reason, the other feeding sites are closed to public access until spring, when the herds begin moving back into the forests, he said.
That ban also applies to cross-country skiers and snowshoers. "Once we've got those elk there, we want them there," Miguez said.
Predators also can change the dynamics of the feeding sites, he said. Some of Oregon's estimated 5,700 cougars are drawn to Anthony Creek and the other sites, and they often lurk in the trees to watch the elk.
"We are aware we are going to have predator kills around the feed sites," Miguez said. "That's where the food source is."
Cougars and bears are one reason only 30 percent of elk calves survive their first year, a figure at least 10 percent below state management objectives for elk.
The wild card now is wolves, Miguez said. No wolves have been confirmed around the feeding sites, but more than a dozen roam northeastern Oregon and biologists aren't sure how the herds will react when they show up, he said.
In Wyoming, elk have left feeding sites when wolves appeared, Miguez said.
That could happen in Oregon, or the state's elk might just learn to live with wolves, "as they do now with other predators," he said.
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.