The Zumwalt Prairie is a magical place in winter. Wind whips snow across the landscape, obscuring and transforming the gently rolling hills by the minute.
“Thirty seconds ago, you couldn’t see anything,” said Tyler Houck, looking through a scope from the front seat of his pickup truck. “I was just seeing if I could find any animals because usually if you find animals then you can find the people.”
But not just any animals or people. Houck is looking for elk — and the people who hunt them. He patrols the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oregon for the Nature Conservancy. Counter to what you might expect, though, his job is not to keep hunters out of the nonprofit’s 4,400-acre nature preserve; it’s to help them find elk inside of it.
“The Zumwalt hunts aren’t necessarily about killing elk,” he said. “It’s mostly about keeping the elk moved around and instilling in them that they have to go from place to place to place.”
Most people might think of a nature preserve as a place where animals are protected from hunting. But in recent years, the Nature Conservancy has organized the state’s biggest hunting program on private land in partnership with neighboring ranchers, with a controversial goal of controlling and relocating an elk population that has boomed into the thousands.
By late December, hundreds of hunters have been trekking across the Zumwalt for more than four months, both on the conservancy’s preserve and the surrounding private properties.
“It was really neat to learn that the Nature Conservancy allowed people access onto this preserve to hunt,” said Kyle Petrocine, who has hunted several seasons on the Zumwalt. “But it makes perfect sense: We're part of the system, and so it makes sense to provide access for humans into this landscape.”
Historically speaking, it’s next to impossible to separate people from the Zumwalt ecosystem, particularly since the area played a special role in Oregon’s particular history of humans and elk.
By the early 1900s, white settlers had hunted elk to the brink of extinction across Oregon. It got so dire, the state banned elk hunting for decades.
Then in 1912, the state’s first game warden hatched a wild plan: He would transplant 15 elk from Wyoming to northeastern Oregon. Huge crowds turned out in each town to watch the caravan make its journey by train, wagon and sleigh to a fenced meadow north of the Zumwalt. The elk became celebrities, as their offspring were sent to help reseed the rest of Oregon.
In the ensuing decades, elk migrated across the Zumwalt in modest numbers. Small herds would arrive in spring to munch the new grass and leave in winter, when snow covered the prairie.
However, beginning in the early 2000s, the population began to grow from hundreds to thousands, hitting a peak of 3,890 elk in 2015.
Local biologists and observers attribute the population boom to a mix of factors: growing hunting and predation pressure in neighboring national forests, a number of landowners who tore down fences and planted forage to turn their land into elk hunting preserves, and a run of mild winters that made forage available year-round on the prairie.
“Elk are naturally a prairie animal, so once they made it out here and there was no more [hunting and predation] pressure, they found it to their liking,” said Chad Dotson, who oversees the Nature Conservancy’s elk management programs on the Zumwalt. “The hunting pressure was much lower because it was private property, and the population soared.”
During mating season, giant herds would move across the land like great brown waves. And they started to linger on the prairie year-round, leaving their mark everywhere they went.
“It was devastating to the aspen,” Dotson said. “They eat all the small ones, and they rub their antlers on the big ones. And aspen is just like candy to an elk. They love it.”
To protect the last aspen and shrub stands on the prairie, which provide essential habitat for birds, pollinators and mammals, the Nature Conservancy started building dozens of large, protective fences.
But it’s not just aspen and shrubs that elk eat. They also munch prairie grass, which puts them in direct conflict with another denizen of the prairie: cows.
The Nature Conservancy has long collaborated with neighboring ranchers, leasing preserve land for cattle and conducting research to confirm that well-managed grazing is compatible with a healthy grassland, particularly when the cattle are rotated often.
“We have a program with the TNC where they allow my cattle to graze on their land for a period of time,” said Clint Krebs, a neighboring ranch owner. “That gives me the ability to rest a pasture of mine that I might have to graze otherwise.”
Elk, of course, are more than happy to eat the grass that ranchers want to reserve for their livestock, and the big herds had the tendency to tear down fences. So as the elk population grew, so did the outcry from ranch owners.
“They were damaging a lot of our soils,” Krebs said, pointing to patches of dark brown dirt cleaving several prairie grass bunches. “If you look here, all of these black spots, that’s caused by elk hoofprints when the ground is really soft in March and April, before any livestock ever shows up on the Zumwalt. And that grass will die.”
So a group of ranchers banded together with the Nature Conservancy and another local nonprofit, Wallowa Resources, to try hazing the elk off the prairie. Staff would approach them by foot, horse and vehicle in order to herd them toward the neighboring forests. But it turned out elk herd about as well as cats.
Next, the Zumwalt ranchers asked the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to start hunting seasons to reduce the population and pressure the herds off the prairie. But for it to work, most of the dozens of landowners — including the Nature Conservancy — would need to allow hunters onto their properties, to avoid creating new, smaller refuges.
“It’s important for the Nature Conservancy to cooperate with our neighbors,” Dotson said. “They’re stewards of the land, just like we are.”
ODFW now offers nearly 1,000 cow elk tags on the Zumwalt, in seasons running August through January. The Nature Conservancy accepts about a third of those hunters on its preserve.
The state agency’s long-term plan is to reduce the spring elk population on the Zumwalt to 700 animals — not because elk don’t belong, but because in this modern world, elk aren’t the only player. Ranchers also get a say.
“Management objectives are not the carrying capacity of the land necessarily,” said Pat Matthews, wildlife biologist for ODFW’s Wallowa District. “That's partly taken into consideration, of course. But more realistically, people decide this is basically what we can tolerate. And it is an experiment. If it doesn't work, we're going to have to come up with some other way of trying to achieve that goal.”
Just as elk don’t pay attention to property lines, this field experiment has revealed that people aren’t so easily fenced in either. So perhaps it should be no surprise that the few Zumwalt landowners who oppose the hunting program are themselves hunters; they simply oppose the level of hunting happening on the Nature Conservancy's land.
“If you take [25,000]-30,000 acres, put 700-1,000 hunters on it, how long are the elk going to be there?” said Bruce Hampton, a hunter himself who spent years making his Zumwalt property more wildlife friendly. “There should be some utilization, but not full-out slaughter.”
Critics say the large numbers of hunters lead to instances of trespassing, poaching and dead animals that hunters either fail to track or abandon, as well as elk being run into and tearing down barbed wire fencing. But their primary fear is that the volume of hunters over such long chunks of time lasting into the calf-gestation periods could decimate the herd.
“They need time to put on fat and meat, so that they can survive these harsh winters that the Zumwalt Prairie has,” said landowner Tammy Jackson. “And when they're pressured continuously, that doesn't happen.”
So far, ODFW’s spring population counts remain in the 2,000s — well above the averages in the 20th century — and Matthews contends there’s no current risk of the herd dropping below targeted levels. But in response to critics’ concerns, the Nature Conservancy has agreed to cap how many hunters it allows on its preserve. And it's worked to replace barbed wire fences with wildlife-friendly fences that young elk can cross.
“They have worked with us really well,” Jackson said. “I know they're in a tough spot. I do feel like they are pressured to increase the hunting on their property, which I found really surprising that a Nature Conservancy group that's supposed to be protecting and preserving the animals in nature would be allowing the hunting. But I understand that they are under a lot of pressure from neighbors to do that.”
The Nature Conservancy is trying to find a balance that works for all its neighbors — and for the environmental health of the Zumwalt Prairie as a whole.
“Overall, the elk numbers have decreased on the upland prairie,” Dotson said. “It’s definitely still a work in progress, but our aspen stands are doing better. They’re coming back.”
One sign the program is succeeding in dispersing the elk is that neighbors and hunters say they no longer see the giant herds that they saw during the peak.
Hunting season is the only time the public has almost free reign to explore the entire Zumwalt Preserve — and that engagement is a goal in itself for the Nature Conservancy — but Petrocine hiked from dawn until dusk the day OPB went out with him and only managed to see four bulls.
"I was hoping there’d be some cows in that group,” he said, looking through his binoculars at four elk across a ravine at the edge of the prairie. “But antlers on all four of them. We can just look and admire the bulls, but we’re looking for a cow.”
He did come across one cow, but as if to hammer home a point, it was of the moo variety.