Kirk Johnson has lived in the Rimrock area for 14 years. His home sits in the shadow of wind turbines near the foothills east of Ammon.
Elk near his property aren’t unusual in the winter, Johnson said; he’s seen them most years he’s lived there.
He isn’t used to seeing dead ones in his backyard, however. There havebeen eight in the vicinity this winter, which has been particularly harsh.
“I’m worried about them this year; the elk are digging way down into the snow to get food. A man can hardly kick through that snow,” Johnson said. “We feel like the elk are in trouble.”
Though Johnson is used to seeing elk across a ridge behind his home, a herd of about 75 have lingered closer to his property this year.
The animals broke a sprinkler riser near his well, and have picked at a few trees Johnson said probably won’t survive through spring.
Johnson noticed the first dead elk Sunday morning. Four more appeared by the time Idaho Department of Fish and Game personnel visited Wednesday morning. They found an additional three animals in a field in front of Johnson’s house.
Johnson assumed the animals starved, but that wasn’t the case, according to Fish and Game Regional Wildlife Manager Curtis Hendricks.
Instead, the Rimrock elk poisoned themselves, Hendricks said. A necropsy performed by a Fish and Game wildlife veterinarian Thursday found evidence of Japanese yew in all eight carcasses.
The Japanese yew shrub and other ornamental plants commonly featured in yard landscapes are toxic to elk. The Japanese yew has also been the culprit in the deaths of eight elk in the Boise foothills and 50 antelope near Payette so far this year.
Though Fish and Game didn’t find evidence of toxic plants in the immediate area, a vacationing neighbor’s yard was picked clean, Johnson said.
“They’ve eaten everything they can eat, particularly the shrubs and trees around my neighbor’s house. They’re eating whatever, all kinds of things,” he said.
It’s possible there are toxic plants in the area Fish and Game didn’t find, Hendricks said, or the elk ate such plants elsewhere and migrated to the land around Johnson’s property.
Commercial animal feed could be another cause of death. Elk can’t digest the rich, “high quality” food people keep on their property and feed to livestock, Hendricks said.
Fish and Game has set up more than 100 elk and mule deer feeding sites statewide, Regional Conservation Educator Gregg Losinski said.
The Legislature has authorized the department to spend an additional $400,000 on an emergency winter feeding program in the Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area, where ungulate foraging areas were burned by the Henry’s Creek Fire. The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.
The winter feeding program gives animals more fuel to survive a winter thick with crusted snow, but it also reinforces good habits, Losinski said.
Animals seek easy food, regardless of malnutrition risk. Feeding sites, such as the ones in Tex Creek, keep animals from foraging on private property during difficult winters.
“If people start feeding animals or if they find food somewhere, even if they don’t need it, they remember and come back to that spot year after year, even during mild years,” Losinski said. “The vast majority of elk feeding going on is to keep the elk from getting in contact with human-related activities. Feed lots and highways, that sort of thing.”
Tex Creek feeding sites have kept about 4,500 elk there, Hendricks said. With development encroaching upon wilderness, it’s important to find ways to keep animals and people safe, he said.
“It’s not like these elk are in downtown Idaho Falls or anything; they’re hanging around the boundaries of town and feeling out what they can get,” Hendricks said. “It’s a hard balance maintaining wildlife populations but also balancing human interests and needs. We’re not pointing to any one thing that’s bad, good or otherwise, it’s just the realities we deal with across the state.”
Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 542-6762.