Friday, February 11, 2011

Visiting the Oak Creek Wildlife Area

A bull Rocky Mountain elk stands watch.
 The Oak Creek Wildlife Area encompasses 47,200 acres in Yakima County, just outside the town of Naches, Washington (15 miles west of Yakima).  It's a winter viewing and feeding area for both Rocky Mountain elk and California big horn sheep, and was established to resolve the conflict between these animals in search of winter food and private land owners, orchard growers, and livestock producers.

Rocky Mountain elk issues a challenge to nearby bull elk.
The California big horn sheep feeding area is located just off Highway 12 at the intersection of Highway 12 and Highway 410, just west of Naches.  Feeding time is around 10:00 am, so arriving around 9:00 am is recommended.  As with the elk, the animals become playful and frisky as meal time nears, and this is the best time to view and photograph their behavior.  The males in particular like to display dominance, and are often challenged when they do so!

Rocky Mountain elk playfully spar.
 Cold spells are the best time to view these animals. The colder, the better. Nice, sunny days with temperatures in the 10's or low 20's is ideal. If the weather has experienced a recent warm trend, it can mean food available up high and only limited numbers will descend to the feeding area - usually only females. Or, in the case of my most recent visit, they won't show up at all.

Rocky Mountain elk stand alert.
The main elk feeding station at park headquarters is located just a short distance up Highway 12 from the intersection with 410. There are other feeding areas, including at the intersection (easily missed if not observant), but the feeding station at park headquarters is the only one to offer a formal parking lot, visitors' center and guided tours. 

A Rocky Mountain elk anticipates feeding time.
The elk begin congregating early here, even though feeding time typically isn't until 1:30 pm.  The descend from the surrounding hills much like the sheep, and lounge in the large field - slowly migrating towards the feed barn as the morning wears on.

I recommend arriving here around 10:30, right after the feeding of the big horn sheep (once they are fed there isn't much reason to stick around).  The first tour truck departs at 11:00 am.  They then run every hour, or half hour depending on the demand.  Sign-ups are in the visitors' center and can fill up fast.  You can also call ahead and reserve your group's spot on the trucks.  Information is available at their web site, as well as information and directions to other viewing spots within the Oak Creek Wildlife Area.

Guided tour at Oak Creek Wildlife Area.
The tour trucks each hold a little over a dozen people. They drive out into the middle of the herd and park for 15-20 minutes, engine off. At this point people can move around freely on the truck for optimum viewing. I highly recommend the tour as a means to get closer to the animals and to be able to photograph them in a more natural setting (vs. having fences and barns in your background). The tour guides are always very informative too, and I have learned something new on each visit. Though the tours are free, please don't forget to offer your donation. It's your money that keeps this program going.

Oak Creek feed truck prepares for food drop.
The starting up of the loud diesel feed truck is like a dinner bell to the elk, and "cheaters" will approach the truck as the workers prepare their load.  The bundles of hay are dropped via a conveyor belt as the truck drives slowly across the field.  It is fun to watch the elk follow the truck across the field in anticipation of the next drop!

This is a winter feeding program only, and numbers of animals can vary from year to year depending on the harshness of winter.  Numbers were way down this year during my visit, sporting only 670 elk vs. the 1,000+ I have seen other years.  However, this decrease actually made it easier to photograph them, offering easier isolation of the animals.
A feed truck makes it's way through the herd at Oak Creek.

January and February are the best months to view these animals.  December is too early due to its closeness to hunting season; the animals are still quite nervous and stressed.  It is not uncommon to see maimed animals.  A three-legged cow has been present the past four years.  Unable to run or even walk fast, I'm amazed at her resiliency.

Oak Creek Wildlife Area is a place you want to visit and take the family.  I return each year with my kids in tow, and they absolutely love it.  Try it - you'll be hooked!

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