We took a leisurely drive today as well as a brief walk and we were again struck by how barren the herd’s food sources looked of late. About the only browse that was above the snow pack were pretty much trees. For the past 30 to 45 days here in Benezette and more specifically Winslow Hill there has been at least 5 inches of snow on the ground in most places and many days there has been 10 or more.
Everywhere we looked today we saw what would appear to be new rubs. (trees with bark stripped by bulls rubbing their horns on them) However, if you examine them closer many of them have had the bark stripped off by hungry elk willing to eat just about anything that provides hope for nourishment. The bulls do still use their antlers to rub these trees, but not always for the reasons they did in the earlier months. They have learned over the years that if they pierce the trees with their horns that sap will flow out. They can then simply drink the sap as it runs out.
This time of year is a real challenge for the herd and especially the youngest amongst them, but the fact that twigs and bark are becoming staples of their diets is not the only hazard is out there. What I speak of are the kind intentioned individuals who try to supplement the herds browse by providing food for them. What seems to be a kind gesture in the long and short term can do far more damage than good.
One problem that arises is that the herd begins to develop a dependence on the food humans provide for them. They begin to associate humans as food sources and lose the drive to push out into the wild to search for new food sources. Thy grow so accustomed to handouts that when people stop feeding them they can starve to death.
The feeding of elk also tends to cause them to congregate in the areas around these feeding spots which is typically a residential setting. This grouping of elk allows for sickness and disease to more easily spread through the herd as well as increases in Elk and Human conflicts. What starts out as a kind hearted gesture can end with decreasing the herds overall health and even death to individual elk.
We ask that no matter what the perceived consequences of not feeding the elk are that you consider the greater concerns that acclimating them to human feedings carries with it. Our herd is a strong and resilient one and the more they become self reliant the better the chances are for their long term revival.
Some photos from today:
This fella greeted me out the door today. He was passing through our yard down to a field that has started to thaw. There is not much grass showing yet, but it is a much better option than chewing on twigs as he was doing in our yard.
We watched this fella digging in the neighbors wood pile. I can’t be sure he was looking for food there, but he would dig a bit and then lower his head down for a while. One possibility is that he was digging up the roots that lay near the surface in this area and eating them. In any case he was a busy bee for quite a while and then walked off into the woods.
This was one of about 9 elk cows and calves who were browsing on a small hill. They were mostly targeting small tree growths but were occasionally digging through the snow for leaves and occasional twigs.
You can see here that this tree was recently worked on by a bull. The sap is wet and running down the tree. For the past 2 months this has been a common sight in Elk Country.
She was working really hard at picking every morsel of bark off this particular tree. On occasion she would also strip slivers of the tree off as well, but mostly she stuck with the tender bark.
This moment in time I think kinda sums up how the herds current state. Tired but not defeated. This cow took a moment to rub her head up and around this tree as if to scratch her face and for a brief moment rested her head up against it. After a brief rest she then continued to pick the bark from the tree and seemed quite content doing so.
Upon reading this I know it can come off as a bleak assessment of the herds food supply, but that is not really what I am meaning to do in this post. Sure high energy food is scarce and the elk are resulting to what some would find saddening tactics for survival such as eating trees, but instead I see this as a true testament to the viability of the herd in our area.
There is no a doubt that the elk are hungry and sure some will not make it, but they are strong and fighting. I know if it were me out there I would have given up long ago, but not Pa’s Elk. They are fighters and are in my opinion well on their way towards prospering here.