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Elk in the Clear Creek Burn: To Feed or Not to Feed?

The Clear Creek Fire in game management unit 28 has left many people wondering what big game animals, especially elk, will be feeding on this winter. Impressions of a completely charred landscape have led to rumors that Fish and Game will feed wintering elk to make up for a lack of natural food. While a significant loss of winter range occurred, much of this area did not burn at all or was actually burned by low intensity fires. As a result, the area should experience rapid recovery. After surveying the winter range, Fish and Game biologists feel that it will probably be sufficient to take the elk through a mild to average winter. However, if the winter proves to be harsh, a decision will need to be made whether to provide wintering elk with supplemental food. Supplemental feeding of big game is dictated by a specific policy adopted by the Fish and Game Commission. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game, by policy, does not sanction any widespread supplemental winter feeding programs. The policy states that the Department is authorized to feed big game only if the following conditions exist: 1) To prevent damage to private property or for public safety when other methods of preventing damage and providing safety measures are determined to be impractical, inappropriate, or ineffective and the amount of damage or cost of protection is expected to exceed the cost of feeding. 2) To prevent the excessive mortality of big game populations in drainages that would affect the recovery of the herd. However, emergency situations may be declared depending upon the following criteria: the condition of animals at the beginning of winter; temperature; snow crusting and depth; and availability of forage. Should monitoring of a herd show that these criteria result in an emergency situation, the Regional Supervisor can authorize department staff to begin a supplemental feeding program for big game herds in affected areas. Elk herds that traditionally use the winter range affected by the Clear Creek Fire will be monitored by regional Fish and Game employees throughout the winter to document their condition. If an emergency situation arises and supplemental feeding becomes necessary, food will be provided to the elk in the form of nutritionally complete pellets. When providing artificial food to elk, it is vital that the animals are fed the proper foods. A sudden dietary change to a feed such as hay can harm the animals' digestive tracts, causing death. Because of this, Fish and Game asks that concerned citizens not attempt to feed wintering elk. When considering whether or not to provide supplemental feed to wintering big game animals, it is important to remember that they have evolved over thousands of years to cope with Idaho's harsh winter conditions. The death of some of the young, old, and weak, while distressing to humans, is simply part of the natural cycle. It insures that the strongest members of the herd survive to pass their genes on to a new generation. Often, however, this basic truth becomes clouded by the emotions of compassionate people who feel that they must do something to help. Unfortunately, the helping hand more often simply makes people feel good rather than actually benefiting the animals. Artificial feeding brings with it a host of problems, nearly all of which negatively impact the animals themselves. Feeding promotes crowded conditions where diseases such as brucellosis, chronic wasting disease, and tuberculosis can spread rapidly. The crowding itself breaks down the complex social structure of the herd, causing stress to the animals. Dominant animals usually get the bulk of the food leaving the animals that really need extra food without. Long-term feeding can also interrupt ancient migration patterns, causing the elk to become dependent upon human handouts, losing the very wildness that we so admire. For all these reasons as well as those concerning human safety, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game responds to requests to provide artificial feed with great caution. The situation on the winter range in Unit 28 will be monitored closely throughout the winter. If an emergency situation arises, supplemental feeding will be conducted. With reasonable weather and thousands of years of adaptation behind them, the Unit 28 elk will probably come through this winter as they always have, without human help.