NACHES — One hundred years. That's how long the Yakima elk herd has been here — at least in its current incarnation, the one that grew from fewer than four dozen Rocky Mountain elk that arrived here in railroad cars.
In the century since, that herd has experienced decades of tremendous growth that led to periods of virtual slaughter, a so-called “elk war,” management-goal-oriented hunting seasons and, now, a winter tourist attraction of wild animals being fed by the thousands at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area before an audience of photo-snapping onlookers that on a busy Saturday can number in the hundreds.
NACHES — The volunteers who help make the Oak Creek Wildlife Area visitors center and elk-feeding tours a positive experience for thousands of annual visitors do so because they love it.
But it's also a responsibility none takes lightly.
“This is a commitment,” says Donald Franklin, president of the Wildlife Education Corps (WEC), a tight-knit group of the three or four dozen volunteers, most of them retirees.
“Some people have been doing this for years. Some are upset because (visitors) have to use a Discover Pass out there now; we had one volunteer quit over it.
“That's how dedicated these people are. They're there to educate the public.”
A handful of volunteers have been a part of the WEC almost since its 1989 inception under then-Oak Creek manager John McGowan, when it was called the Senior Environmental Corps.
“We started with not too many people,” recalls George Bess, a retired Navy lifer who signed up as a volunteer in 1990 and oversaw the group's shift scheduling at its monthly meetings right up until he and his wife moved to Dayton two years ago.
“The idea was to talk to people who came up there to visit, and obviously sometimes if they were short of people, we'd help them load the hay,” says Bess, 84. “One of my jobs after I'd been there a few years was doing the bookkeeping for all the travel” — a 56.5 cents-per-mile stipend is the only pay the volunteers receive — “which turned out to be quite the job.
“As we progressed, we were feeding 2,000 elk or something like that, and quite frequently the volunteers would help the truck or throw the hay. If we had room, we'd invite people from the crowd to ride the truck and help throw out the small bales. And we set it up so if a group wanted to do it, the group could go out and help throw the bales.”
Now the hay distribution is all done mechanically from the back of a flatbed truck owned by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. But visitors can tour the feeding field on bench seats in the back of one of two old military trucks — “these big old deuce-and-a-half trucks, as we used to call 'em,” says Franklin — each of which can carry as many as 15 or 16 camera-wielding, wide-eyed tourists.
Volunteers in the visitors center — manned by WEC members seven days a week — take tour reservations by phone (509-653-2390) and also move through the crowd during the daily 1:30 p.m. feeding, answering questions and, when asked, being a visitor's designated picture-taker.
“The general public, about 90 percent of them, have zero knowledge of elk,” says Don Witke, who trains the volunteers in elk physiology, life cycle and state history so they can share that knowledge. “So we try to educate them in the amazing world of elk and elk management.”
“It's all about relationships with the public,” Franklin says. “You try to tell something new to these people, and so you'd better have your ducks in a row. The word 'bad' spreads quick, and you don't want that: There's people come quite a ways to see this.”
The visitors must abide by rules, which include: no dogs allowed. Bess still remembers the time a spectator's pet — “this little white dog” — got through the fence, “and that put that whole elk herd up over the hill. They just took off. We're always working with people, reminding them, 'Don't spook the elk.' They are wild animals.”
Because of that, as many as 10,000 spectators a year come out to see them, in droves for the 1:30 p.m. daily feedings or in smaller groups during the quiet times.
“Every once in a while on an off day,” Franklin says, “I go out there and just lean against the fence and think, hey, this is why we do this.”
In January and February of 1913, the Yakima elk were a curiosity, their arrival viewed by hundreds of onlookers and trumpeted in the Yakima Morning Herald under a headline, “Elk Are Now In The County.”
Over the previous three years, the elk herd in and around Yellowstone National Park had grown to a population size far beyond available forage during the harsh Wyoming winters. Every winter hundreds of them starved to death, a number that over the winter of 1910-11 spiked to 2,500 dead in the Jackson Hole area alone.
In 1912, federal officials decided the way to save the elk was to spread them around, and offered surplus animals to other states. At a price, of course.
Yakima sportsmen paid the price — $600, to be exact, to cover the purchase and transport of 50 Yellowstone elk. The six-day rail trip from Gardiner, Mont., wasn't easy on the four-legged animals or, for that matter, the two-legged ones; three cow elk died en route, and Yakima County game warden Frank Bryant was gashed in the head by a bull's antler during the unloading.
The 47 surviving elk — six bulls and 41 cows — spent a week in a Yakima stock pen before being transported to Naches and then up the Naches River to the Nile Valley and what was then the Stevens Ranch. There they were fed until the south-facing slopes of Cleman Mountain were snow-free enough to reveal the bunch grasses beneath.
On Feb. 22, the elk were released to fend for themselves. Two years later, 42 additional elk from Yellowstone were released in the Colockum hills of Kittitas County.
This, of course, was still three decades before the state wildlife department would begin erecting eight-foot-high fences to keep the elk off private farmland. As the elk population multiplied exponentially, by the early 1920s farmers' fences were routinely being knocked over and their orchards, alfalfa fields and haystacks ravaged by hundreds of 500- to 700-pound animals, each capable of consuming 15 pounds in a single day.
So it became time to hunt them.
The first elk-hunting season was set in 1927, with licenses set at $5 apiece. This was no small amount in those days; equivalent to roughly $66 today, that was a princely sum in an agricultural region at a time when — though the Great Depression wouldn't begin for another two years — farm mortgage foreclosure rates were already at record highs. (That year, in fact, a man whose Michigan farm had been foreclosed upon used explosives to blow up an elementary school, killing 38 students and six adults in the country's first incidence of mass murder.)
But those $5 elk licenses went like hotcakes. Nearly 1,000 were sold — at a time when Yakima County's population was less than a third what it is now and cross-state travel for hunting trips was significantly more problematic — and 189 bulls were harvested. Annual elk hunts continued over the next nine years, with 50 to 60 bulls taken each year.
But the damage to the local ag fields continued.
In 1934, the area at the junction of the Naches and Tieton rivers — where the Oak Creek Wildlife Area is now — was owned by Kirtley Sinclair. A hardy Scotsman whose father had moved the family from Nova Scotia to Naches in 1877, Sinclair was raising hay and cattle on some 2,000 acres that spring when he suffered his first range and fence damage from elk. It was just three elk that year, a number that rose to 25 the following winter. A year after that it was 100 and by the winter survey of 1937, Sinclair's hay was being enjoyed by nearly 190 elk.
The Washington Department of Game — established when county game commissions were abolished in 1933 — decided even removing 500 cows and calves and setting a herd maximum at 1,500 animals wouldn't be enough to stop the damage at Sinclair's and neighboring farms.
“The only possible permanent solution to their problems,” the official recommendation said, “would be the purchase of the farms by the state.”
That would happen, but not for another 12 years.
In the interim, the state, hunters and angry farmers did what they could to cull the burgeoning elk herd.
When Cowiche-area ranch employees illegally shot marauding elk over the winter of 1937-38, no fewer than 82 witnesses — reportedly “from one end of the valley to the other” — showed up wanting to testify to their own elk damages in support of the Cowiche ranchers.
The following fall, the Oak Creek winter range was opened to hunters on a liberal one-elk, any sex or age basis, while hunters anywhere else in the county — including the Rattlesnake Refuge, which had always been closed to hunting — could kill any one male elk with visible antlers. Game officials thought 300 elk might be taken in the hunt, perhaps even as many as 500. The actual kill that season: 1,006, more than the total number taken since the first authorized hunting season in 1927.
While celebrated by many rural landowners to whom the elk were simply an invading horde, the slaughter-like hunt of 1938 was roundly criticized by sportsmen. The game department, meanwhile, went about its business of purchasing land — including the Sinclair farm, which quickly became “the Oak Creek Game Range” — on which the elk could forage to their appetite's content.
In 1943, the state legislature called for $100,000 to be spent on building elk-proof fencing, and over the next decade 166 miles of that fence was built, nearly all in Yakima and Kittitas counties.
The elk-vs.-farm issue, though, didn't come to a head until 1949.
That winter was a cruel, seemingly endless stretch of wind-driven snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures. The elk, their winter forage buried under several feet of snow, turned by the hundreds once again to private property. Dozens of game department officials, on horseback or in Jeeps, tried in vain to drive the elk off the farmland.
When those measures didn't work, the farmers decided to take matters into their own hands and began shooting. One killed nine elk and essentially told game officials, “Come and get 'em.” Another 80 elk were killed by other fed-up farmers in what became known as “the elk war of 1949.”
The “war” didn't end until a Yakima crop-duster pilot named Carl Brady offered to use his helicopter to herd the scavenging elk back onto the refuge. To the surprise of the dubious district game supervisor who had approved the mission, it worked.
Two years later, during another hard winter, game officials called on Brady once again. A feature article in Popular Mechanics magazine heralded him as “America's first helicopter herder.”
These days, the Yakima elk herd is one of the state's largest, attracting upwards of 20,000 license-purchasing, tag-carrying hunters to the annual late-autumn season. The herd's 12,000 animals roam over 900,000 acres of public land — and, yes, on occasion, private land as well.
In the coldest part of the winter, though, thousands of those elk rarely stray from the fields at the Oak Creek headquarters, casually known around the state as the “Oak Creek elk-feeding station.”
When the snows come, so do the elk, and so do the people wanting to see and photograph them from scant feet away. And those people make that trip from Yakima, from Spokane, from Oregon or Idaho, or from the airport after flying in from countries all over the world.
“It provides the general public with an insight into elk,” says Don Witke, a longtime volunteer with the Wildlife Education Corps, which assists state wildlife employees with the feeding program and coordinates feed-site tours.
“You can't go anywhere else in the entire world where you can drive up, park your vehicle, walk about 10 feet to the fence-line and see wild elk at a distance of maybe 20 feet.”
And there will be a whole lot more of them than there were 100 years ago.