Motorists on busy Highway 62 between Medford and White City were even more tied up than usual last week when a herd of about 50 Roosevelt elk joined rush-hour traffic. Southern Oregon's Jackson County...
MEDFORD, Ore. — Motorists on busy Highway 62 between Medford and White City were even more tied up than usual last week when a herd of about 50 Roosevelt elk joined rush-hour traffic.
Southern Oregon’s Jackson County has two elk herds, totaling about 185 animals, and there are concerns that they are growing from novelty to nuisance.
State wildlife managers would like to trap about two-thirds of the elk and move them to remote forests that were scorched by the 2002 Biscuit fire.
Both herds live east of Interstate 5 in the grassy foothills of the Cascade Mountains. One is in Medford, the other near Ashland.
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Bruce Killen, a Medford wildlife artist, has kept an eye on the Medford herd since nine showed up near his home about 15 years ago. He’s not sure the trap-and-remove plan for a herd that has grown to 60 animals provides a permanent fix.
“These elk migrate in here naturally. You’re just going to get more elk coming here,” Killen said. “People are pushing them from one area to another area, and they’re not going to really stop until they’re at an area where they feel comfortable.”
Elk love the newly rehabilitated pear orchards of direct-mail giant Bear Creek Corp., which planted 225,000 trees after the 1998 purchase of two large orchards — one in each herd’s range.
“They felt comfortable and came down to make a home there. That was our dilemma. We really created an attractive nuisance,” said Keith Emerson, director of Bear Creek orchards and environmental programs.
“Once they got a taste of the fruit, they started eating it. You couldn’t even find pears on the top of the trees. They eat everything, even the leaves.”
Elk munched through 100 tons of signature Royal Riviera pears in three weeks, and bull elk tore up some trees and damaged others with their antler rubbing, Emerson said.
Other orchardists report similar problems, and farmers report hay fields getting chomped and fences tromped.
The elk also are a traffic hazard. An elk can grow as tall as 5 feet and can weigh up to 1,000 pounds.
The cameo appearance on Highway 62 — a five-lane highway that carries an average of 40,000 vehicles a day — sent police scrambling to keep both human and animal traffic safe.
“We’re kind of in a wait-and-see mode. The herd did this for the first time. Maybe they’re not going to do it again,” said John Vial, district manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation.
If they do, the department will have to intervene, he said, possibly putting up signs to warn motorists.
“It’s a fairly significant hazard,” Vial said.
State wildlife officials plan to place radio collars on animals in both herds as a first step in a three-year relocation plan, said Mark Vargas, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
After studying the herds’ movements and preferred locations, wildlife officers will begin baiting the elk with fresh alfalfa next winter.
Wildlife officers will erect corral-type traps to confine young bulls and cows, which will be trucked to remote forests in the Biscuit burn.
“It’s areas where probably the habitat can support more elk,” Vargas said. “It’s a huge area, and there are some spots to augment some of the elk populations that are there already. We think there’s room for expansion.”