ELLENSBURG -- The search for edible vegetation, more than the disturbance by people driving snowmobiles and trucks, is the primary force driving the late-winter movements of the Colockum elk herd.
So say the just-released findings of a 3 1/2-year study of the 4,500 Colockum elk, during which the herd's state-managed wintering range was closed to motor vehicles from February through April.
However, state wildlife officials are expected to extend that closure on that 44,000-acre, heavily-roaded portion of the Whisky Dick and Quilomene wildlife areas through this spring as well. One reason is that the spring closure is consistent with the timing of other wildlife-area closures. There also is the fact that the last three spring closures coincided with decreases in the Colockum animals' often expensive forays onto neighboring agricultural land.
In many elk-populated areas in Yakima County, winter feeding programs and elk fences help minimize the issue of elk foraging on private farmlands. The Colockum -- located northeast of the Kittitas Valley -- with no winter-feeding effort and no elk fences, poses an entirely different set of management issues.
"The elk have unrestricted access to a wide-ranging landscape," said Department of Fish and Wildlife elk expert Scott McCorquodale. "They can go where they want to go."
Fewer elk have ventured onto private lands neighboring the closure area over the past three winters, and not surprisingly, most of those landowners have supported the closure.
But many Kittitas County recreational users of the area have not, and that divide was evident during a presentation last week of the study results before a crowd of about 150 at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.
Most audience questions revolved around the closure. One spectator suggested the elk study was part of "some pre-determined mission to close roads in the Colockum."
The Colockum herd study began in the winter of 2008-09 and involved putting radio collars on 109 elk, some for one winter and others for repeat winters.
Despite what McCorquodale called "some major movements" of elk westward from the closed winter range toward the Park Creek/Caribou Creek area, very few of the animals actually ended up in private crop fields.
But that wasn't necessarily because of a lack of winter-range disturbances, McCorquodale said. Some elk moved out of the lower-elevation winter range as early as February, while others stayed another five months.
Why, then, continue the motorized winter-range closure?
"There are closures on winter ranges across the West, pretty much in every state, and there are a lot of reasons why people do that," McCorquodale said. "Preventing elk from going where you don't want them to go is probably one of the less common reasons."
A bigger reason, he said, was to minimize disturbance to elk whose body-fat content is down to a surviveable minimum after a fall spent avoiding hunters and finding diminishing forage as the winter approaches.