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Out of the Wild

Minivans and pickup trucks lined the skinny shoulder of an S-curve on Foothill Road one rush hour last month, with heads popping out of sunroofs and camera phones all pointed toward an adjacent field.

A large male bull Roosevelt elk and about two dozen female cow elk sat in state for their roadside audience, posing calmly to the great delight of a growing audience packing the shoulder near Coker Butte Road.

While the onlookers snapped photos, state wildlife biologist Steve Niemela became overwhelmed with emotion.

"I was terrified," Niemela says.

One truck backfire and one of those cow elk could dart into traffic; a rubbernecking driver could hit a kid; families darting among a stream of cars is dangerous; all for perhaps their first and only chance to see Oregon's largest land mammal in such a personal way.

"In a way, that one day was a microcosm of this problem, says Niemela, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist. "We have these beautiful animals in a place where people can see them and bond with them, but in a place where they're causing public-safety concerns and even damage to private lands.

"No one got hurt, but it shows how you can look at this in many different ways," he says. "It was all wrapped up in that one afternoon."

Despite a two-year effort to trim the so-called Foothill elk herd by half to reduce damage to pear orchards and fence lines, the herd roaming the fringes of northeast Medford continues to grow and present conflicts.

With only four elk successfully trapped and released on Forest Service land near Galice in the past two years, Niemela is entering his third winter of elk-trapping, intent upon trying new tactics to remove more elk while bringing more of the public into the discussion.

The ODFW will look into bringing in more seasoned elk-trappers to improve their catch, Niemela says. Biologists might look into trying to drive the elk like cattle into a larger net for capture, expand public hunting for the elk and even consider aggressive feeding of the elk elsewhere to lure them away from Foothill Road and Highway 62.

He also may create a public advisory group to get more public input on how best to address the dilemma and keep people better apprised of the herd's activities.

The plan is to get some answers during this winter trapping season before a deadly encounter occurs.

"That's the kind of thing we're trying to avoid, but we can't seem to find the tool," says Niemela, as he tends to his trap on private land off Coker Butte Road.

"If we could just get them to stay a quarter-mile over there, it would be great," says Niemela, pointing east. "But they're elk."

When discovered in the early 1990s, the elk were a small and docile herd that gave Medford residents a little taste of living in the wild. But over the years, the herd has swelled to where it at times hammers local pear orchards, tramples fences and triggers intense public disagreements over whether it should be hunted.

According to some, the elk began to become too much of a good thing. In 2004, Bear Creek Orchards managers estimated that the herd ate 100 tons of Harry and David's gourmet Rogue Riviera comice pears.

But the last straw was the elk's penchant for wandering across Foothill Road and even Highway 62, posing a risk to themselves and drivers that could not be ignored.

The ODFW began its trapping efforts two years ago, but the animals and their circumstances make that troublesome, says Niemela, who estimated the herd's size at 85 animals.

First, the elk must be trapped in winter because the heat adds stress that can kill the animals, Niemela says. But cool winter weather also means mud that would bog down elk-hauling trailers, limiting trapping sites to areas adjacent to driveways.

Getting the elk into any of three traps in the area can be difficult. Though baited with donated pears and occasionally alfalfa, the traps cannot compete with fruit on nearby trees and grasses already growing well from the wet fall weather, Niemela says.

"It's hard to compete with comice," Niemela says.

With only four animals successfully relocated, landowner David Dow sees the herd growing, not shrinking, from year to year. He would prefer agency biologists to find nearby public land where they can lure the elk with an aggressive feeding program.

"I don't see how they're going to solve the problem by trapping a half-dozen elk a year," Dow says. "It's no good the way it is now."

While aggressive feeding has curbed elk damage elsewhere, Niemela doubts its success here.

"I don't know what you could feed them that's better than pears and green grass," he says.

Ironically, Bear Creek Orchards, which has 97,705 pear trees on 220 acres off Foothill Road, has seen a decrease in elk damage. The elk once favored a grove of 100-year-old comice trees, where they found the open space between the trees prime for lounging, eating and even calving.

A shift to the planting of pear trees in tighter clusters means the orchard is falling out of the elk's favor, says Keith Emerson, Bear Creek's director of orchard-fruit production.

"We took away the habitat they liked best," Emerson says. "I never would have guessed that would make such a difference."

But Emerson still sees the elk's presence as a serious safety issue.

"The speeds on Foothill (Road) can be fast," Emerson says. "On a foggy day, you're looking for taillights, not hoofs.

One option could be to use a helicopter to drive the elk into one large trap, but the many roads, power lines and fence lines likely would make that unsafe and impractical, Niemela says.

The elk also are primarily on private lands whose owners don't welcome hunters or in orchards where either very limited or no hunting is allowed, Niemela says.

The Foothill elk are just the first herd the ODFW has tried to tackle. Growing herds in Sams Valley and off Valley View Road are like Foothill starter-kits — future places where other elk likely will pose similar problems that landowners will want addressed.

"There's always going to be an area just outside of town where there is this interface between wildlife and people," Niemela says. "The bottom line is that we may have to live with a large number of elk next to town."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Steve Niemela, ODFW wildlife biologist, has had little success with the elk trap placed near Coker Butte Road. Fresh elk forage is plentiful this year due to the mild fall and winter, leaving the elk with little reason to seek out the fruit used to bait the trap. pennell photo - Bob Pennell