Yakima elk herd reaches centennial

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NACHES, Wash. — One hundred years. That’s how long the Yakima elk herd has been here – at least in its current incarnation, the one that grew from fewer than four dozen Rocky Mountain elk that arrived here in railroad cars.

The herd has experienced decades of tremendous growth that led to periods of virtual slaughter, a so-called “elk war,” management-goal-oriented hunting seasons and, now, a winter tourist attraction of wild animals being fed by the thousands at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area before an audience of photo-snapping onlookers.

In January and February of 1913, the Yakima elk were a curiosity, their arrival viewed by hundreds of onlookers and trumpeted in the Yakima Morning Herald under a headline, “Elk Are Now In The County.”

The elk had come from the Yellowstone Park and Jackson Hole areas, where federal officials were trying to thin out the region’s elk, which were overpopulated and dying during the previous three winters.

Washington and Oregon sportsmen raised money to ship Yellowstone’s surplus elk to areas such as the Blue Mountains.

Yakima sportsmen, too, raised $600 to cover the purchase and transport of 50 Yellowstone elk. The six-day rail trip from Gardiner, Mont., wasn’t easy on the four-legged animals or, for that matter, the two-legged ones; three cow elk died en route, and Yakima County game warden Frank Bryant was gashed in the head by a bull’s antler during the unloading.

The 47 surviving elk – six bulls and 41 cows – spent a week in a Yakima stock pen before being transported to Naches and then up the Naches River to the Nile Valley and what was then the Stevens Ranch. There they were fed until the south-facing slopes of Cleman Mountain were snow-free enough to reveal the bunch grasses beneath. On Feb. 22, the elk were released.

Two years later, 42 additional elk from Yellowstone were released in the Colockum hills of Kittitas County.

Three decades later, Washington’s wildlife agency would begin erecting 8-foot-high fences to keep the elk off private farmland, where they were ravaging crops at rates of up to 15 pounds an elk a day.

The first elk-hunting season was set in 1927, with licenses set at $5 apiece. Even though that was the equivalent to roughly $66 today, those $5 elk licenses went like hotcakes. Nearly 1,000 were sold – at a time when Yakima County’s population was less than a third what it is now and cross-state travel for hunting trips was significantly more problematic – and 189 bulls were harvested.

Annual elk hunts continued over the next nine years, with 50 to 60 bulls taken each year.

But the damage to the local ag fields continued.

In 1934, the area at the junction of the Naches and Tieton rivers – where the Oak Creek Wildlife Area is now – was owned by Kirtley Sinclair. A hardy Scotsman whose father had moved the family from Nova Scotia to Naches in 1877, Sinclair was raising hay and cattle on some 2,000 acres that spring when he suffered his first range and fence damage from elk. It was just three elk that year, a number that rose to 25 the following winter. A year after that it was 100 and by the winter survey of 1937, Sinclair’s hay was being enjoyed by nearly 190 elk.

The Washington Department of Game – established when county game commissions were abolished in 1933 – decided even removing 500 cows and calves and setting a herd maximum at 1,500 animals wouldn’t be enough to stop the damage at Sinclair’s and neighboring farms.

“The only possible permanent solution to their problems,” the official recommendation said, “would be the purchase of the farms by the state.”

That would happen, but not for another 12 years.

In the interim, the state, hunters and angry farmers did what they could to cull the burgeoning elk herd.

When Cowiche-area ranch employees illegally shot marauding elk over the winter of 1937-38, no fewer than 82 witnesses – reportedly “from one end of the valley to the other” – showed up wanting to testify to their own elk damages in support of the Cowiche ranchers.

The following fall, the Oak Creek winter range was opened to hunters on a liberal one-elk, any sex or age basis, while hunters anywhere else in the county – including the Rattlesnake Refuge, which had always been closing to hunting – could kill any one male elk with visible antlers. Game officials thought 300 elk might be taken in the hunt, perhaps even as many as 500. The actual kill that season: 1,006, more than the total number taken since the first authorized hunting season in 1927.

Rural landowners applauded the elk slaughter of 1938 while sportsmen criticized it.

After the Oak Creek winter range eventually was declared a wildlife area.

In 1943, the state legislature called for $100,000 to be spent on building elk-proof fencing, and over the next decade 166 miles of that fence was built, nearly all in Yakima and Kittitas counties.

The elk-vs.-farm issue, though, didn’t come to a head until 1949.

A cruel winter of heavy snow drove elk down beyond the wildlife area and onto private land. Dozens of game department officials, on horseback or in Jeeps, tried in vain to drive the elk off the farmland.

When those measures didn’t work, the farmers decided to take matters into their own hands and began shooting. One killed nine elk and essentially told game officials, “Come and get ’em.” Another 80 elk were killed by other fed-up farmers in what became known as “the elk war of 1949.”

The “war” didn’t end until a Yakima crop-duster pilot named Carl Brady offered to use his helicopter to herd the scavenging elk back onto the refuge.

Two years later, during another hard winter, game officials called on Brady once again. A feature article in Popular Mechanics magazine heralded him as “America’s first helicopter herder.”

Nowadays, the Yakima elk herd is one of the state’s largest, attracting upwards of 20,000 license-purchasing, tag-carrying hunters to the annual late-autumn season. The herd’s 12,000 animals roam over 900,000 acres of public land – and still, occasionally on private land as well.

In the coldest part of the winter, though, thousands of those elk rarely stray from the fields at the Oak Creek headquarters, casually known around the state as the “Oak Creek elk-feeding station.” When the snows come, so do the elk, and so do the people wanting to see and photograph them from scant feet away.

Visitors make the trip from Yakima, from Spokane, from Oregon or Idaho, or from the airport after flying in from countries all over the world.

“It provides the general public with an insight into elk,” says Don Witke, a longtime volunteer with the Wildlife Education Corps, which assists state wildlife employees with the feeding program and coordinates feed-site tours.