Written by Beth Geiger
As an October day dawns in the Oak Creek Wildlife area near the Tieton River, strange whistles and grunts echo through the forest. Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni ) are bugling, challenging each other as the fall rut begins. There are sawing sounds, too: bull elk rubbing their antlers against trees to scrape off decaying velvet. Human visitors, listening to the odd noises from the safety of a meadow’s edge, may see the bulls challenge each other more directly with dramatic clashes of their racks.
Autumn’s chill brings has brought hundreds of these big animals to the lower elevations of Oak Creek from their summering areas high in the Cascades. In summer, new calves in tow, the elk will return to the mountains to browse on shoots, grass, dandelions, violets, and clover. Calves grow quickly, from a spring birth weight of 35 pounds to nearly 250 pounds in the fall when they return to warmer winter ranges, including Oak Creek.
It’s a mobile lifestyle. In the course of each year, these Washington elk may range over an area of 600 square miles, shaping the ecosystem as they graze, wallow, and scrape. They depend on the migration corridors that connect their summering and wintering areas. That’s where the Conservancy comes in.
About ten years ago the Conservancy began buying private timberlands in the central Cascades. The first 10,000 acres purchase was transferred to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), allowing WDFW to expand the Oak Creek Wildlife area. That expansion included eight miles of critical riparian habitat along the Tieton River. The purchase set the stage for the December 2014 purchase of 48,000 acres of “checkerboard” land along I-90. With our help, the elk’s migration corridors in the Oak Creek Wildlife area and other parts of the Central Cascades are now protected from development.