OLYMPIA – Collectors of shed elk antlers will have to wait until May before entering the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's (WDFW) Oak Creek Wildlife Area west of Yakima, to avoid causing the animals stress and making them move from their prime forage areas.
Posted portions of the wildlife area will be closed during the months of March and April to all access, whether by foot, horseback or motor vehicle.
The closures cover about 13 square miles of Bethel Ridge, the area adjacent to Oak Creek's main winter feeding station where up to 2,000 elk congregate, and about nine square miles of the Cowiche unit, which is host to about 1,200 elk.
WDFW Oak Creek Manager John McGowan explained that during the past several years, it has become popular for people to search these portions of the wildlife area for shed elk antlers. The activity has drawn hundreds of people.
People moving about in search of antlers, he said, move elk off of their best late-winter and early-spring foraging areas. The elk either move higher where snow cover remains and forage is scarce, he said, or they move off the wildlife area onto private rangeland, where they are unwelcome.
"Either way, it defeats the purpose of the state managing this wildlife area for elk," McGowan said. "Oak Creek provides habitat for elk and other wildlife and helps minimize elk damage problems for adjacent private rangeland."
Bethel Ridge includes the south-facing slopes just above Oak Creek's main winter feeding station, McGowan explained. The first "green-up" of the season occurs on those slopes, he said, and elk feed there extensively during March and April. The Cowiche unit also greens up early and is so wide open that just a few people moving about can push elk off the best forage area.
Thousands of people visit Oak Creek every winter to view elk at the feeding station near the area headquarters. Bulls with big antlers especially impress visitors, McGowan said, and an increasing number of people are returning to collect those shed antlers in March and April.
"It's OK to pick up shed antlers," McGowan said, "But not until May when the elk have moved higher and are not impacted by that activity."