SUN VALLEY — As anyone who has tried to break a habit knows, it’s hard, even if the incentives for change are great.
That’s the case with the elk herd that has for centuries wintered in the valley that now houses the Elkhorn subdivision south of Sun Valley. Despite cars, people and, more recently, wolves, the Elkhorn valley is where those elk have for generations come each winter to survive. And that has become a problem.
The elk are now feeding on homeowners’ landscaping, sauntering in front of cars and being killed by predators in backyards.
“I don’t need stories of wolves eating people’s dogs or driving the cougars down here,” said Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich. “The wildlife situation is getting a little unstable.”
Though the elk’s presence poses serious concerns about health and safety in Sun Valley, it’s unclear what can be done about it — even the experts disagree.
A history of winter habitat
Elk have been in the valley since long before the first city was incorporated, as the area’s rich winter habitat attracted them to make it part of their annual migration. As Ketchum grew and Sun Valley morphed from resort to city, more humans were attracted to the valley, too.
“In late ’71 and ’72, Elkhorn valley started to be developed into Elkhorn proper as it looks today,” said Lee Frost, who for 29 years was an Idaho Department of Fish and Game conservation officer in the Wood River Valley before retiring in 2001. “The elk tried to fit in, if you will, around the development as it took place.”
The department tried unsuccessfully to stop one piece of that development, the June Day subdivision, which pushed the elk farther to the east. The department argued the importance of the June Day land for the local herd, which numbers between 50 and 200 head depending on the year and who is doing the estimating.
“That first winter after the subdivision was built, several of the elk really did have a lot of trouble. It was a rough winter for them,” said Regan Berkley, regional wildlife biologist for Fish and Game.
That winter, about 1978, the elk came down onto the property of a prominent area landowner, who took it himself to help the elk out. “One, we felt so sorry for them, because they were famished. It’s no fun to watch an elk die of starvation,” said Ed Dumke, Sr. “Secondly, we didn’t want them tearing down our (horses’) haystack.”
The Fish and Game maintains a stance that feeding wild animals in almost every situation is a bad idea.
“That’s what we told Ed. He listened very politely and said, ‘I’m not here to ask permission, I’m here to tell you what I am going to do,’” Frost said.
And because feeding elk on private property doesn’t require a permit in Idaho, that’s exactly what he did, during heavy winters for more than two decades.
When the troubles began
About nine years ago, Dumke bequeathed a large piece of property, including the ridge site where he had fed the elk, to The Community School, a private K-12 school in Sun Valley.
Dumke had donated the approximately 30 acres for the school to use as athletic fields, with the possibility that the elementary school might end up there as well. However, lawsuits related to the Elkhorn homeowners’ association’s claims on the property have forestalled that classroom use.
With the donation came an agreement that the school would continue in Dumke’s tracks, trucking feed up the hillside for the elk in winter. Though the feeding was not written into the donation contract, Dumke called it a “moral obligation” for the school.
The elk had gotten accustomed to the winter nutrition, and would bed down on the ridge between feedings, offering great photo opportunities. And it seemed to work.
“I never had a single complaint from any of the landowners about their landscaping being eaten, elk starving to death or elk being hit by vehicles on the streets,” Frost said.
In 2006, though, the school’s equipment broke down, and the elk feed was apparently left beside a road at the base of the hill, much closer to homes than the herd had regularly gone.
That winter, the elk learned that residential landscaping can be tasty. They also learned that some of it can be poisonous, and several became sick and died after eating the foreign greenery.
Some neighbors filed a civil action against The Community School related to the yard damage, which has been estimated between $100,000 and $250,000. Dumke, who developed the Sagewillow development that abuts the school’s property, said those homeowners knew that elk wintered nearby, and the existence of and right-of-way for the feeding operation were written into their property covenants.
“The Sagewillow homeowners were pretty vicious about the whole thing,” Dumke said, frustrated by the consequences of his donation.
Harry Griffith, an Elkhorn homeowner who has spoken in the past for some of the neighbors, said it isn’t just the Sagewillow owners who have had concerns. He said the suing homeowners wanted the school to come up with a better, more reliable plan for keeping the elk away.
The school decided that abandoning the feeding program was its best option, especially after listening to Fish and Game’s advice. Dumke told the school that his intention was that the property be a boon, not a burden, and released them from the handshake agreement. “I didn’t want them to go broke on attorney fees,” Dumke said.
“We were causing more problems by feeding the elk than we would by not feeding,” said Andy Jones-Wilkins, headmaster of The Community School, which continues to use the property for athletics and its annual garage sale.
Christine Willich, wife of Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich and president of the nonprofit Wood River Elk Trust II, said few in the community fault the school for the decision, even if it has created problems.
“The Community School said, ‘We educate, we don’t litigate,’ and you can’t really blame them,” she said.
Winters and wolves
For the past three winters, the elk have had no central feeding site in Elkhorn. Residents sometimes throw bales of hay over a back fence for the animals, watching them get thinner and thinner as winter persists.
“That occasional reward is going to encourage them to stay there,” said Berkley. “It’s going to prolong the process of them learning to discover and use the natural winter range that’s nearby.”
There is some dispute about whether that range — some of which is up Independence, Keystone and Parker gulches — is sufficient to support the Elkhorn herd as well as other elk that have traditionally wintered there.
“The quality of … elk winter range that may exist in those canyons isn’t even anywhere close to the quality of winter range in people’s backyards,” Frost said, adding that any plan to enhance that canyon range will take decades. “The elk are basically going to go where the groceries are the best.”
In the meantime, though, wolves also came to town.
The Phantom Hill wolf pack discovered the Elkhorn herd last winter, and began chasing the animals down into subdivisions, sometimes taking down kills in residents’ backyards.
“How many elk were killed by the wolves is anybody’s guess, but they obviously ate a fair number,” Frost said. Wolves, in contrast to the mountain lions that have long lived in the area, travel in packs and howl, giving them a much higher profile. “Every now and then you’d find a lion-killed elk, but it wasn’t this full-on Ringling Bros. effect you had with the wolves.”
It is a huge question whether the wolves will behave the same way this winter. This fall, a hunting season was opened on them, and Fish and Game believes two of the Phantom Hill pack wolves have been killed. Optimistic folks hope this will make wolves wary of coming near humans or inhabited areas, while pessimists say they’ll return to where they fed on elk last year, whether they’re hunted or not.
Habituation and starvation
Even if the wolves keep a low profile, the elk will still come to Elkhorn this year, and probably for many years to come, regardless of whether food is provided. And though elk loss to starvation in winter is natural, no one wants to accompany morning coffee with the scene of starving animals.
“The elk in Elkhorn will be doing their dying in people’s yards, and that’s a terrible thing, a heartbreaking thing for people to watch,” Berkley said.
A group of elk lovers formed to address the problem. The Wood River Elk Trust II (an older group with the same name disbanded years ago) attempted to launch a feed site this summer near property owned by the Elkhorn homeowners’ association. Christine Willich says the group has the support of most Elkhorn homeowners, as indicated by a straw vote of the association in early summer and her and Dumke’s sense of public opinion.
“Our whole goal is to try to keep the elk out of the city and keep them on a high ridge by feeding so they don’t wander through,” she said.
However, the homeowners’ association voted in September not to lease the group the land. Griffith, who supports Fish and Game’s decision to not feed the elk until they leave the area, said the elk trust’s plan was insufficiently detailed, didn’t include assurances of the group’s resources and could have left the homeowners’ association open to lawsuits.
“It wasn’t credible, what they were proposing,” he said. “In the right place, with the right program, I’m sure people would be more comfortable with how they do this.”
So for another winter at least, the people of Elkhorn and Sun Valley, the elk, and perhaps the wolves, are going to have an uneasy season.
“The worst-case scenario is pretty easy to envision, because if we get heavy, early snow by mid-December, that will bring those elk in and they’re not going to leave until the first of April,” Frost said. “You’re going to have a lot of people complaining, a lot of very expensive landscaping being destroyed. You’re going to see some elk-car collisions. Throw in some predators, and it just turns into this incredible mess.”
Even the best-case scenario of a light winter isn’t promising. Little snow and warm temperatures would make it much easier on the elk, helping them stay out of yards without starving. However, a lack of snow would be much harder on the local economy, something nobody in the ski town is wishing for.
As Berkley noted, scanning the hills with a radio receiver for signals from elk and wolf collars, “There are a lot of Catch-22s.”
Ariel Hansen may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 208-788-3475.