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Forbidden fruit solves elk problem

The same taste for high-end pears that helped make a herd of Roosevelt elk one of northeast Medford's urban headaches soon may bring its days of easy living to a screeching halt.

Shovelfuls of pears culled from local orchardists are one of the main ingredients state wildlife biologist Steve Niemela is using to trim the herd to a more manageable size of about two dozen animals from its 100-elk heyday earlier this decade.

"We've been at this for four years now, and we've gotten a lot better at it," said Niemela, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, as he shoveled pears into the corral-like trap Monday.

"We definitely put a dent in the herd last year, but to get to a spot where we say we're done, we could stop — this could be the year," Niemela said.

Niemela and other wildlife biologists are trying to trap and remove as many of the so-called Foothill elk herd as possible to reduce orchard damage, trampled fences and traffic headaches along Foothill Road.

The herd, which stood at about four dozen animals this fall, already has taken a few hits.

Hunters killed three bulls during the October general hunting season, Niemela said. Six more elk were shot by hunters on private agricultural land using special damage-control permits the ODFW issues through its Land Owner Preference Program, he said.

The latest thinning came early Thursday morning when Niemela captured 10 elk — two adult cows and the rest yearlings — in darkness.

Watching with night-vision glasses from afar, Niemela saw the elk wander into the makeshift corral. He hit an electric switch which closed the gate and dropped tarps around the 91/2-foot metal fencing to keep the animals at ease.

They were loaded onto a large trailer and hauled to a remote part of eastern Curry County near Agness, where they were released into the Shasta Costa drainage of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

"We got more than 50 percent of last year's haul (17 elk) in one night," Niemela said. "We're pretty excited about it. If we can catch another 15 to 20, that'll do it."

But there are no guarantees what worked last week will work next week.

The elk, which now number about 40 animals, could wander somewhere else for a while. Already, about three dozen of the original Foothill elk have splintered off and disappeared, Niemela said.

"There are 30 to 40 elk that are unaccounted for," he said. "Will they come back? That's one of those things we can't control."

So Niemela visits the trap daily, refilling the elk's alfalfa-comice cocktail in hopes of getting the animals used to wandering into the trap before he drops the door on the unsuspecting animals.

"They go through massive amounts of pears right now," Niemela said. "These elk are used to pears."

Since they first appeared in the area in the early 1990s, these "urban elk" have become mascots of sorts in the Medford area, where residents often marvel at seeing Oregon's largest big-game animal stroll across the road or lounge in a field a stone's throw away from them.

But the elk feast on expensive pears, tromp fences and damage trees. Their travels across busy roads such as Foothill have officials afraid they may one day cause a large and fatal vehicle crash.

Their appetite for pears is legendary. In 2002, Bear Creek Orchards reported losing 100 tons of its high-end Rogue Riviera pears to elk.

Since the elk roam private lands near homes in and out of city limits, relying on hunters to thin the herds had not worked by itself.

So Niemela began trapping and hauling the elk to more suitable habit four years ago. In the first two years, just five animals earned the road trip to Agness.

Niemela has since improved his tactics.

He extended the trap's original 8-foot sides because elk too easily jumped out. Volunteers spiffed up the trap's electronic trigger. And Niemela began working full time on the effort, daily restocking the four traps with pears.

Such efforts have made a difference.

Naumes Inc.'s orchards off Vilas Road, for instance, once teemed with pear-munching elk, said Ron Hall, Naumes' orchard operations manager.

Since the trapping began, Naumes has suffered little or no damage in recent years as numbers of elk are down and they seem to prefer younger trees in nearby orchards, Hall said.

"They had been a real problem there, but not lately," Hall said.

Not everyone is pleased with ODFW's recent efforts.

Coker Butte Road resident David Dow, who used to allow Niemela to trap on his land, said having the trap nearby coaxes in elk that trash fences. During hunting season, it also lures hunters.

"I thought they'd go get the job done, but it's lingered on," said Dow, who added the ODFW should instead focus efforts on luring animals to the east side of Roxy Ann Peak by feeding them in winter.

"There's still 40 elk running around the neighborhood," Dow said. "The way they went at this was a bum deal."

The effort will run through February. After that, higher air temperatures can overstress captured animals and kill them.

Until then, Niemela and his shovelfuls of donated pears will remain on task full time.

"I'm very hopeful we will be able to wrap it up this year," Niemela said. "But there are factors that we can't control."

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

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Steve Niemela baits a Roosevelt elk trap with pears off Coker Butte Road. The animals, which can eat tons of pears in one season, are being relocated to more suitable habitat in Curry County. - Bob Pennell