Elk Friendly Fence Crossings

September 1, 9:00 am.

The days are getting shorter, each day the sun is coming up a little later and setting a little earlier. The hot afternoons make me forget the cool crispness of the mornings yet every morning, as I take my morning hike up the mountain, it is apparent that summer is coming to an end.

On the mitigation project in the Little Lake Valley there are many signs that fall is rapidly approaching. The lack of bird song is of course one of the most obvious though not all the birds have stopped singing. There are birds that seem to sing more in the late summer and early fall, like the California Wrentit that I wrote about last year with its “ping pong ball” song and the Bewick’s Wren with its complicated song.

We, at the Mendocino county Resource Conservation District staff working on the Willits Bypass site are working on two different but related projects – our elk friendly fence crossings and fitting our water troughs with avenues for escape should any small mammal, bird, insect, amphibian or other small creature fall into them.

When the fences were installed for the purpose of the grazing cattle a few years ago, the Tule Elk were not a big issue. Today we have 50 plus elk living in the Little Lake valley and because they are a herding species, they stay together in large groups most of the year except when calving. This means that what one does, they all tend to do. If they are spooked by something or someone they run as far as they can away from whatever is scaring them. The fences were built with an unbarbed smooth bottom wire so that deer and other wildlife can get through. Elk were not part of that consideration and in the first year it became obvious we had to do something to help the elk get over the fences. One of our managers started taking notice of where the elk wanted to cross, or jump the fences, and in those locations the top wire was lowered and then covered with corrugated large diameter tubing. These were strapped on with zip ties and the barb wire was covered by the tubes.  The adults quickly began using the crossings but the young elk still needed help getting over. We were able to watch them using these modified fence crossings and captured them crossing on our video cams. This was 3 years ago and this year we noticed that the tubing was getting very beat up, maybe from elk hooves or from the young bull elks testing their antlers on them! We upgraded the old worn black plastic tubing to sturdier, streamlined white PVC tubing. We also decided to raise the lowest wire, the one that is not barbed, at the crossings, to at least 18 inches, so the very young elk calves can get under. The top wire height is 36 inches above the ground. The tricky part is to allow the elk to move through while still keeping the cattle in! Mostly the cows will not jump the 36 inch-high fence but, once in a while, there will be an intrepid cow that does figure it out and will jump over also.This fencing is, of course, friendly to, not only, the elk but also to other wildlife such as deer, bobcat, fox, etc. One of our goals is to increase the connectivity within the riparian corridors that we have in the valley. Mill Creek, Davis Creek, Upp Creek, and Outlet creek are all crossing through this area and are important wildlife freeways.  Birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and insects all need these corridors for migrating, nesting, food supply, and safety from predators. We are working to enhance and protect these resources.

We will set up a new video cam recorder at one of these crossings to make sure the elk are still willing to use the new white, not black, crossings. It is amazing that any change in their environment, (and this they have in common with cows), will cause them to be more cautious. As we are working, the elk herd is in the distance staying far away with their young calves. There is a dominant bull and a spike bull with them. The other bulls are getting ready for the rutting season, which begins this month, snorting and beginning to bugle their passions.

 The photo I have included in this blog is of a bull elk that was surprised by me and not happy about it at all. He flared his nostrils, snorted and did a little stamping at me then turned casually and sauntered away, in no hurry. He is a large bull who may try to test the strength of the old bull so he can become the head of that female herd of elk cows and calves. We hope our fence crossings, the new ones we have installed and the old ones we have revamped will make it easier for this small and magnificent herd to get around in our valley.