With the exception of feeding birds, the public is routinely discouraged from feeding wildlife. The problem is most people don’t feed the right kinds of food that wild animals can actually digest.
But near Seaside, there’s a tour where the public is encouraged to feed wildlife. The feedings provide multiple benefits for the animals and the people.
Each winter, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife offers free elk feeding tours at Jewell Meadows Wildlife Area.
Participants ride in a wagon pulled by a tractor through a meadow, flinging flakes of alfalfa for herds of wild elk. The elk come close to eat the handout, offering a premiere wildlife viewing experience.
“It’s fantastic. It’s a rare opportunity to a see a herd of elk especially this large up close and personal,” said Ryan Poteet from Colton.
“We have feeding programs all across the state. Our major focus is to pull elk off surrounding agricultural lands,” said Braden Erickson, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “In this area it’s primarily the timber industry. Elk have the ability to go through a freshly planted clear cut, nibble the new growth off the tops of the trees and wipe out an entire planting.”
There are two species of elk in Oregon — Rocky Mountain Elk east of the Cascades and Roosevelt elk in western Oregon. The largest of these animals can weigh 1,200 pounds.
To see them this close is magical.
Male elk shed their antlers each spring and grow a new set each summer. The males use their antlers to fight each other for the right to mate.
As the bulls mature, their antlers get larger, adding branches, also known as tines.
“A lot of people think that the tines correlate to the age of the animal, which is not correct. They do get bigger as they get older but once they reach a certain age, they start to get smaller,” Erickson said. “What it’s really correlated with is the amount of nutrition they get throughout the season that they grow antlers, from late April to about August. They’ll grow these every year in about a three-month period.”
The heaviest single antler on record is 28 1/2 pounds. That’s just one antler. Imagine walking around with 60 pounds of antlers on your head.
“The rut or breeding season happens August through October. It’s a pretty interesting time. If you get a chance to come out here during the rut, you’ll get a chance to hear what is called bugling. It’s a loud, almost high-pitched squeal,” said Erickson
“It’s one of those sounds that if you were hiking in the woods and you didn’t know what it was you’d feel like you’d want to get out of there pretty quick. It’s amazing to hear a sound like that come from these animals,” said Erickson
About half the female elk, known as cows, are pregnant this time of year. Many are accompanied by calves which are born in June. They grow rapidly and within nine months are as big as their mothers.
“These elk aren’t hunted as frequently because Saddle Mountain Unit is a 3-point unit or better. That means they have to have at least three points visible on their antlers to be hunted. We do have cow tags, but very few. It’s uncommon for our cows to get hunted. Most of it is they die from old age or predation,” said Erickson.
Reservations are required to participate in the elk feeding tours at Jewell Meadows Wildlife Area and they always fill up. The tours are offered December through February. Tours are generally six days a week Thursday through Tuesday, but could change depending on availability of staff and volunteers.
Due to the popularity of this program, reservations are required. To make a reservation, call the wildlife area at 503-755-2264. Please be patient as there is only one phone line. Callers may experience busy signals but keep dialing until you get through.
We got on this tour because it was the last one of the season, and the weather was brutal, but that made the elk all the more appreciative of the alfalfa we fed them.
“It was great. They definitely know the routine. They are used to coming up close to people, so it was great,” Poteet said.