SWEET — When Trevor Chadwick, a Star city councilman and mayoral candidate, arrived at his Bear Valley-area campground last Friday for the opening weekend of archery elk hunting season, he didn’t have to go very far to find an elk.
He was greeted at the campsite by a young bull elk that was relocated to Bear Valley, north of Lowman, last month after becoming too habituated to humans. The bull was named “Elliott” by residents of Sweet, the small town north of Boise where the elk first started interacting with humans.
“Before I went up there, I happened to see an article about Elliott,” Chadwick said in a phone interview. “I saw him and I was like, ‘That’s freaking Elliott!’ ”
According to Rick Ward, a wildlife manager with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the agency first became aware of Elliott last year when an officer visited the Sweet area over a different issue and came across the then-calf elk being bottle-fed in a resident’s barn.
“The officer either released him or told the person to release him,” Ward recalled. “Eventually it made its way back to Sweet and was a frequent visitor by this spring.”
Ward said Fish and Game received multiple reports about Elliott’s behavior from residents who worried the elk would become an issue around September when the rut, or elk breeding season, begins.
“Bulls and bucks ... when they enter their rut, we have known instances of bucks turning on people and causing some pretty significant injuries,” Ward said in a phone interview. “I think that’s what would’ve happened with this bull when he entered the rut.”
Fish and Game officers caught Elliott near Sweet on Aug. 19 and transported him to Bear Valley in the hopes that the animal would join one of the many elk herds there. That didn’t happen.
“We started getting reports that the elk was hitting campgrounds and following people around,” Ward said. “Its opportunity to be an elk had already come and gone. It didn’t know what to do when it was released into the wild.”
That’s how he ended up in Chadwick’s campsite, which he shared with his sons and two longtime hunting buddies. They worried the animal would be shot by a hunter who didn’t know how tame Elliott was.
“We weren’t going to let anyone shoot Elliott,” Chadwick said. “I’m a hunters education instructor, so to me this is all about being ethical and fair chase. He had no opportunity to survive with the way he was. He’ll come right up to you.”
Plenty of Idahoans shared Chadwick’s concerns. A Facebook group titled “Save Elliott” was created Saturday, and by Thursday had nearly 750 members looking for updates on the elk’s condition and location.
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Ward, the Fish and Game wildlife manager, said Bear Valley was likely safer for the elk than the area he came from.
“There are elk archery seasons all over the state,” Ward said, and the zone Elliott was transported to has a capped archery season, meaning fewer hunters are allowed in the area.
“In terms of hunters, there are a lot worse places he could be,” Ward added. “Generally, hunters up there will go without an elk before they take a small elk (like Elliott).”
Still, Chadwick was happy when the young bull decided to bed down near his campsite and hang out nearby during the day. Elliott even slept 10 yards from the hunters one night as wolves howled nearby.
Over the weekend, Chadwick said, dozens of other hunters stopped by to see the elk.
“All the hunters that were around us were like, ‘This is not right,’ ” Chadwick said, referencing the animal remaining in the wild during the archery season. “He doesn’t differentiate between what’s dangerous or what’s not.”
Chadwick also worried about the backlash a hunter would face if he or she unknowingly shot the beloved elk.
“It puts a hunter at risk, a hunter who would have never known he was domesticated,” Chadwick said. “That person would’ve been butchered on social media and in the news.”
On Sunday, Fish and Game officers again captured Elliott.
“After seeing (him approach humans) for a week or so, we decided to recapture the elk because it was clear it was going to end badly,” Ward said.
According to Evin Oneale, communications manager for Fish and Game’s Southwest Region, the agency is still following leads to find a permanent home in captivity for Elliott.
“I understand what they were trying to do, letting him assimilate back in with the elk,” Chadwick said. “The problem started when people decided to take him out of the wild.”
Ward said he’s disappointed that Elliott couldn’t be returned to a herd.
“The message is that picking up wildlife can have repercussions for both the animals and the people that’s unintended,” Ward said. “That animal will never be wild.”