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Idaho Fish and Game feeds elk at site near Ketchum

Elk at the Bullwhacker feed site near Ketchum
Idaho Fish and Game
Idaho Fish and Game has been feeding elk at the site near Ketchum since the 1980s to keep the animals away from the town.

Ben Pace’s commute is a short snowmobile dash. He arrives in a winter hat and ski goggles to this narrow clearing between two hillsides west of Ketchum. For two to three months, he comes here every other day to feed about 100 elk.

“I think of them as friends,” he said. “Some people count sheep at night, I count elk.”

Since the 1980s, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has fed elk each year at the Bullwhacker site to keep the animals away from urban and residential areas. Pace has worked for the department as a contract feeder for about eight years. Sometimes, the elk are waiting for him when he gets there. He’s nicknamed one "Mama Girl."

“I can identify her by her behavior,” Pace said. “She comes right up to me.”

Today, there are strangers with Pace, so the elk are perched high on the hillside, staring down.

“Just curiously watching us to see what we’re going to do,” he said, “if we’re going to put some food out for them or what — they don’t know what’s going on.”

Pace unloads sacks of small alfalfa pellets from a storage shed. He put two bags in each green plastic trough and arranges them in a circle on the ground like logs around a campfire ring. Each elk gets about 10 pounds of pellets per feeding.

This feeding site is the only one in the state authorized by the Fish and Game Commission. The goal is to prevent conflicts between the animals and humans, as development has increased over the years in deer and elk winter range.

“It’s, primarily, the intent of this, is to keep 100 head of elk that would probably otherwise be somewhere in the middle of Ketchum right now,” said Mike McDonald, the regional wildlife manager for Fish and Game. “We keep them here to keep them out of there.”

The agency also opens up emergency feeding sites during extremely harsh winters. But McDonald said he doesn't want to feed any more than he has to.

“Ultimately, I want to make sure that elk, and mule deer, and pronghorn and moose stay wild,” he said. “Anytime you intervene in something like this, you’re taking just a little bit of that wildness away.”

McDonald said other reasons not to expand feeding sites include the fact that they’re expensive, can attract predators and, if chronic wasting disease were to be detected in this region, they could help spread it.

McDonald said the agency is currently surveilling for chronic wasting disease in south-central Idaho, and if it is found down the line, it would likely force a conversation about the future of the feed site.

As for Pace, he identifies as an amateur elk hunter, but he hasn’t gotten tags recently.

“The past few years, I haven’t been inspired to do it because I enjoy feeding them more, I guess,” he said.

He’ll keep coming back to the site until the snow melts and the elk go back to the mountains to graze.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2024 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.

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