By Ross Seyfried
When I first saw her in 1996, Elk Song Ranch had decayed into a shadow of greatness, one crying out for restoration. More than 100 years of savage overgrazing, uncontrolled hunting and unconscionable logging had taken a terrible toll. The great question was how could man intervene, this time in a positive way? Suddenly the responsibility of ownership was all mine; what could and would I do to restore this masterpiece?
For the moment, both hunting and logging had to come to a halt. The timber resource had been plundered in ever more destructive ways since 1900. I do not wish to infer that all logging is a bad thing; on the contrary, logging responsibly can be a valuable tool. I also needed time to assess resources and the elk herd needed time to recover, not in numbers, but in biological balance. The herd needed big, mature males. Getting them was easy: Just don’t kill them, and allow the babies to grow up. And along with the game animals, the world needs predators. So, all were made safe; yes, even the coyotes, bears and cougars. Conventional wisdom said that heavy grazing by domestic cattle was necessary to make the elk happy. Fortunately this was not true. Reducing the pressure from 400 cows for five months to 150 cows for six weeks delighted the elk. And oh my, the difference in the environment as a whole was spectacular!
To accomplish much of our work, a “tool” that many would consider inappropriate in the wild world, the ATV, would become one of the greatest and most useful “friends” of Elk Song. ATVs quickly took over little tasks such as creating strategic salt licks. In this environment, natural salt and minerals are in short supply, so the stock and wildlife need supplements. However, the greatest need for salt licks comes early in the spring and summer, when the ground is wet and fragile. And the salt blocks also needed to be placed in far-flung places. Heavy vehicles create extensive damage, while the light-footed ATV floats harmlessly. So with the ATV there were salt licks everywhere we needed them.
Fencing, both repair and removal, was also part of the program and again the ATV answered the call. Perhaps the only downside to a motor, in comparison to the horse, is noise. ATV noise is unavoidable, but it is much like riding. There are ways to be destructive and noisy, and there are ways to be gentle and quiet. Honda, to their great credit, has done an admirable job of giving us horsepower in a very quiet package. We augment their efforts with additional mufflers, “stealth kits,” incorporating a muffler behind a muffler, if you will. Ridden gently and so equipped, the intrusion in the wild is minimal.
With the general plan in place, we next addressed the 12 miles of streams damaged by overgrazing and logging operations. The change in grazing habits began to help almost immediately as eroded, muddy stream banks began to grow grass and sedges. Refurbishing the stream beds began with replacing rocks and large logs but the large, coarse material did not fully answer the question. Small, brushy material was also necessary to protect the banks and slow the water’s flow, but the intrusion of heavy machinery had to be kept to a minimum. Once again, the ATV became an important and light-footed tool. Small, excess and poor quality trees were cut and used to protect the banks in places, and in the case of the smaller streams, were actually placed right in the water. The bushy lodge pole and fir trees catch smaller debris and filter sediment, which encourages vegetation growth, and they also form habitat for insects and other small creatures that feed the trout. Along the stream banks the brush-effect keeps not only domestic cattle at bay, but also helps protect young willow, alder and cottonwood from the hungry elk. If these plants can grow, the beaver will come with all of his natural magic.
Eight short years have passed and the progress is remarkable. Streams that used to resemble dirt ditches now grow lush. Creatures great and small now thrive. The snowshoe hare has returned in abundance, blue grouse inhabit the ridges and ruffed grouse drum in the alder bogs and stream side thickets. The pair of osprey still nest in the top of the same ancient white fir tree, but now they fledge not one, but two and once, even three chicks because the meandering streams now offer an unlimited fishing resource. Small ground squirrels add to the menu for the other predators, so the cougar and bobcat have an easy time and pursue big game less. The eagle soars and the red tail hawk hunts year around. There is more grass, more old dead grass and jungles of small conifers to provide homes to mice, voles and other small rodents. The coyote hunts these more and at the same time the grouse, partridge and turkeys have better places to nest and hide.
To sustain fiscal realities, the game animals that serve a functional, non-destructive part of the whole must support themselves. Following the short moratorium on hunting, the elk quickly returned to a natural state and soon there were surplus young, mature bull elk and too many females. Hunting returned, but in a very limited and controlled way. It was now about quality, not quantity. About 15 elk per year fund the lives of 1,000 or more, and the rest of the wild world. So nowadays, big, old bull elk rule the mountain. These magnificent monarchs are what a bull elk is supposed to be: perfection embodied. They have stood the test of time, survived the cougar, man and winter and now they pass on genes tested in the forge of nature.
We have created a victorious cycle of success, nature begetting nature. Perhaps the best part of all is that this success is not the result of huge investment, or massive manipulation. The most important thing we do is literally nothing at all. We simply stopped hurting her so Mother Nature—with a little help from some “friends”—could heal herself. Of course this is only the beginning. It will take a century to reach perfection, but in eight years we are perhaps 75 percent of the way there.
(Ross Seyfried has been an editorial contributor to: Petersen's Hunting, Guns & Ammo, American Rifleman, American Hunter, Rifle, Handloader, Successful Hunter, Outdoor Life, Field and Stream, Cigar Aficionado, The Double Gun Journal, Under Wild Skies, Sporting Classics, and Vapen Tidningen (Sweden). He served as a licensed professional hunter in Zambia and Tanzania and is now a licensed guide and outfitter in Oregon. In addition, Seyfried won the World Pistol Championship in 1981.)