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Winter rules the distant Elkhorn Mountains where the ice floes stack streamside and snow drifts line roadways and a sea of white spans the horizon.
It is bone-chilling cold that shows little sign of thawing!
At Anthony Creek in Baker County, a Saturday morning warming fire chases the 20-degree chill away before you step aboard T&T Wildlife Tours.
Alice Trindle shares the reins of the operation with partner Susan Triplett while local horseman Mike Moore lends a hand.
“For 20 years,” noted Moore, “They’ve been taking people up and down this hill and get you up close to Rocky Mountain Elk as you will ever get in your life – a unique experience.”
It is the only horse drawn wildlife tour in Oregon…and Jed and Waylen, a pair of Percheron draft horses, are the heavy pullers.
“This is their third winter they’ve been here helping us out,” said Trindle.“Part of it is their temperament; they are probably the most petted horses in the county. They are our equal partners.”
Each weekend, all of the partners pitch in to feed the elk that make Anthony Creek a winter home from mid-December thru February; they will spread up to a dozen alfalfa bales to feed 150 elk.
“Scoop-loop is our biggest elk; a bull elk and he’s a seven by seven. That means he has seven points (the antler points) on one side and seven points on the other. Antlers are quite amazing – the fastest growing bone in the animal kingdom…They can grow as much as an inch in a day and weigh up to 35 pounds on these rocky mountain elk.”
T&T Wildlife Tours is an asset to Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife Department that maintain nine other feeding stations across the 12,000 acres that make up the Elkhorn Wildlife Area.
For Ed Miguez and the other wildlife area staff it means traveling 145 miles each day.
The Elkhorn winter feeding program started in 1971 and today the feeding crew keeps 1200 hungry elk up in the forest rather than down on nearby ranchlands that are scattered across the valley floor.
Miguez is the Wildlife Area Manager and said that they will feed 850 tons of alfalfa hay each winter and the elk must be fed each day.
“We don’t miss a day! These elk know that there’s feed available on ranches for feeding the cattle in winter, so if we miss a day, there’s a good chance we’ll lose them. If that happens, it’s extremely hard for us to get them back, so we don’t miss a day.”
Most of the Elkhorn Wildlife Area is closed to the public in winter – except Anthony Creek, so it’s a rare and wonderful learning opportunity.
An open viewing area allows you a chance to see the herd anytime or bring the family and spend a few bucks to see Oregon’s largest game animal – up close.
“The younger bulls start some play fighting,” said Trindle. “Some sparring – but really isn’t too serious…pushing and pulling on each other really hard. They’ll also make that noise you just heard – that “mewing” sort of sound. That’s kind of his signal that ‘I’ll give up and you’ve won this round this time, but just wait until next time and another round.”
Triplet added that after twenty years, they continue to learn as much as the visitors. “I think it’s being able to do something you really enjoy! Alice and I joke that we’re going to call it quits when it’s not fun, but here it is 20 years later – we’re still having fun.”
“There’s always something to be observed with these elk,” added Trindle.“To be this close to these magnificent animals and to learn more about them is a real treat for everyone. That’s a real special thing that we can offer folks who visit.”