Across seven feeding sites, the Department of Fish and Wildlife department tries to gather about 2,500 tons of hay before winter weather makes it more expensive to acquire and transport.

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YAKIMA — With snow beginning to fall in the Cascades, it won’t be long before hungry elk start making their way to lower elevations, looking for ways to survive what’s expected to be another cold, wet winter.

The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife will be ready to feed the state’s largest herd and in the process protect valuable agriculture and create an incredible sight for onlookers at the Oak Creek Feeding Station west of Naches.

Even with the Yakima herd down by about 2,500 from last year to fewer than 8,500, according to February surveys, gathering the resources to provide 8 to 10 pounds of hay per elk per day takes plenty of time and effort.

“We’ve already got quite a bit of hay delivered,” Oak Creek Wildlife Area manager Greg Mackey said. “I’m not sure that we have enough here to get us through the winter, but we’ve got about 120 tons of hay here.”

Those bales stacked high outside don’t include the hay filling the barn behind Mackey’s office, which was left over from last winter’s extended feeding season.

Across the region’s seven feeding sites, the department generally tries to gather about 2,500 tons of hay before winter weather makes it more expensive to acquire and transport, said Wenas Wildlife Area manager Cindi Confer-Morris.

Distributing the hay each day requires significant manpower, especially at Oak Creek, the only site where onlookers can drive up to see hundreds of elk on a daily basis. Volunteers offer tours on two 2.5-ton trucks and staff the visitors center, while five paid employees do the loading and distribution, repair equipment or fencing and count elk.

Mackey and his staff oversee four different elk-feeding sites, plus the bighorn-sheep feeding site at Cleman Mountain off Old Naches Road where they place hay to keep elk from eating sheep pellets.

Most long-range weather forecasts predict this winter will be much like the last, when the region’s feeding sites stayed open longer than any other winter since the department started keeping records in 2002.

Mackey can’t answer the frequent questions from people about when the elk will arrive this year, but whenever it happens, food will be waiting.