As stag parties go, this one was pretty sedate. The guys — all 18 of them — were behaving themselves, making no noise and eating nothing but nutritious food.
Such was the “action” at the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area on Highway 38, a few miles east of the coastal town of Reedsport. On a breezy, overcast July afternoon, a group of male Roosevelt elk — each sporting a set of regal antlers — was munching its way through swaths of foot-high grass.
On the other side of a wood and wire fence, though, the humans were hopping out of cars and getting all worked up. They pointed cameras and phones at the charismatic grazers, capturing images of this American wildlife icon. Kids squealed, and an adult gasped, “They are HUGE!”
The Roosevelt elk is, in fact, the largest of four North American elk subspecies — males average 875 pounds — and they have the largest antlers.
“The Oregon Wildlife Viewing Guide” offers a description of the BLM-managed Dean Creek site: “A resident herd of 60 to 100 Roosevelt elk wander this mosaic of wetland, woodland and meadow along the Umpqua River. Elk are easily viewed from turnouts along the highway ... Elk may be seen year-round.”
My wife and I had stopped at this popular roadside attraction many times before, but never had we found the elk so close, or so many bulls in a bunch. Careful not to block anyone’s picture-taking, we took a spot at the fence, my camera busy.
Everyone fell silent for a moment when two of the bulls clacked antlers. Everyone, that is, except some guy in his 20s, wearing a hoodie and baggy sweatpants, who was gleefully anticipating a fight. “Come to daddy, come to daddy,” he started muttering.
The encounter, a false alarm, was over in seconds. Evidently the bulls had bumped accidentally, going for the same clump of grass. Somehow one communicated a “my bad” to the other, and they both resumed chewing.
As Steve Pedery explained to me days later, “In spring and early summer, the competitive behavior one typically associates with male elk is not yet on display.”
Pedery is the conservation director for Oregon Wild, a nonprofit organization committed to protecting and restoring Oregon’s wildlands and wildlife. He wasn’t surprised the males were hanging out together, and getting along so well.
“It is not uncommon where there is abundant food, and Dean Creek certainly fits that bill,” he said. “When fall comes and mating season begins, the males will become much less social, because of competition with other males.”
Standing just a few feet from the elk that day, I could detect slight differences in size and distinguish rough spots on their hides. They seemed unperturbed by the clamor on the other side of the fence — might even have enjoyed it.
According to Pedery, the Dean Creek elk fall into the category of “habituated,” meaning they have lost their fear of humans. “My understanding is that the BLM actively plant, mow and fertilize the fields there to attract them, sort of baiting them in for viewing opportunities.” (The BLM did not respond to my request for information.)
Does this mean, then, that the celebrity wildlife at Dean Creek has ceased being, well, wild? Pedery doesn’t think so.
“If the Dean Creek feeding was stopped tomorrow, these elk could probably do OK feeding themselves and avoiding predators,” he said. “Different than, say, an elk in a petting zoo that has no idea what to eat in the wild.”
His biggest concern is that folks will see the thriving herd and believe all is well for elk in Oregon.
“Places like Dean Creek don’t tell the whole story,” he said. “Unfortunately, most of the Oregon Coast Range is managed for industrial clearcutting of forests, and what the animals need overall is good-quality forest habitat.”
Viewing opportunities help build a connection between people and animals. Therefore, managing an area through artificial feeding, when done properly, has benefits.
“When people have experiences like that, it helps maintain support for fish and wildlife conservation in Oregon,” Pedery pointed out.
Besides, looks can be deceiving. Although the spectators were acting wilder than the elk that day, anyone foolish enough to hop the fence might have found out very quickly he had made a mistake.
“Docile as they may appear, those are still big animals that can do a lot of damage should they become startled,” Pedery said.
Learn more about Roosevelt elk and Oregon’s other native species on the Oregon Wild website (www.oregonwild.org).
Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.