By Sharon Wootton, Columnist
Skiers and snowboarders aren’t the only ones affected by our mild winter. Thousands of elk and hundreds of mountain goats feel the effects, too. And so does the hay budget for the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, 15 miles northwest of Yakima.
Every year, snow drives the elk from the higher elevations to lower areas, often into orchard country. The elk know no boundaries and the usually snow-free land and orchards at lower elevations are attractive to hungry animals.
In self-defense, a 100-mile-long, 8-foot-high fence from south of Yakima to near Ellensburg was built in the mid-’40s, protecting orchards and farms but reducing winter forage acreage for the elk.
In order to limit human-and-elk conflicts, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has been feeding the elk, descendants of the Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone National Park brought to the state in 1913 for hunters.
In some years, the Fish and Wildlife folks feed more than a thousand elk that have come to lower elevations. This year, less snow allowed the animals to feed at higher elevations for a longer time.
About 400 elk and 105 bighorn sheep are fed in two separate areas near enough to the road that people can watch the action.
The 1:30 p.m. feeding time for elk at the Oak Creek facility attracts thousands of visitors each winter. People on one side of the fence watch the hay truck slowly pass through the herd dropping off alfalfa hay bales.
Fewer elk fed for less time means fewer dollars out of the budget.
Bighorn sheep are fed midmorning in another area. Although weather is a factor, the feeding probably will continue for at least one more weekend.
Allow time to browse the visitor center (9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily) and be sure to bring a camera. The elk are just a stone’s throw away, and sometimes not that far.
To park at the wildlife area, vehicles must display a Discover Pass, or a DFW Vehicle Access Pass issued to holders of Washington hunting and fishing licenses.
The Discover Pass ($10 one day, $30 annual) can be purchased at licensed dealers, by phone, 866-320-9933, or online www.discoverpass.wa.gov.
Directions to Oak Creek Wildlife Area off U.S. 12 near Naches can be found at tinyurl.com/7zlr6uv.
Suiattle River Basin: The U.S. Forest Service has published a report outlining how the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest intends to manage about 140 miles of road in the Suiattle River drainage, about 15 miles east of Darrington.
The plan proposes to close 74 miles of road (retaining 66 miles) but restores Suiattle Road No. 26 to its end at Sulphur Creek, allowing vehicles to once again reach the Suiattle trailhead for access to the Glacier Peak Wilderness and connections to the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.
Among the popular destinations that will still be reached by passenger vehicles on existing roads include: Green Mountain Lookout, Downey Creek, Suiattle River Trail, Buck Creek, Sulphur Creek, Rat Trap Pass and the White Chuck River drainages.
The decision can be found at the USDA website at tinyurl.com/6tnlcc5.
Counting: About 345 nonnative mountain goats reside in the Olympic Mountains, according to a 2011 census. Mountain goats have been a concern for a long time because of their impact on native vegetation.
Because of new counting techniques, it’s not possible to compare the number of goats with previous counts. In the 1980s, the park service removed 407 mountain goats.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.