Elk watch at Oregon's McKay Creek

A trip up Oregon's McKay Creek into elk country shows a healthy herd, despite wolf warnings.

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A bald eagle soars above deer grazing on a high hillside.

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A deer appears to smile at visitors to McKay Creek.

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A golden eagle and a pair of blue jays rip at their lunch one afternoon.

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Elk keep an eye out when a truck carrying people and a dog stops for some pictures.

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Aa rooster pheasant scratches for food along McKay Creek.

An e-mail from Bearpaw Outfitters, titled Elk - Near Pendleton, Oregon (Feb. 17, 2011), claimed that within the next five years wolves will decimate the elk populations in Washington and Oregon as they have done in Montana and Idaho.

Many people accept this prediction as fact.

I've read differing opinions, however.

The excerpt below, for example, appeared in an editorial from the Twin Falls' Magic Valley Times-News on Aug. 2, 2010 (Google the following: ‘Editorial: Wolves aren't biggest threat to Idaho elk'): "In the overheated debate over wolves in Idaho, the most common argument by those who want the predators destroyed is that wolves are decimating the state's elk population.

"Not so much, it turns out.

"In its August newsletter, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game summarized recent elk studies and found only a minority of elk populations are declining and wolves are culprits in few.

"One-third of elk populations are increasing even though wolves have been in Idaho since 1995. Though statewide numbers have dropped some, claims that wolves are wholly responsible for declining elk populations aren't holding up."

So, perhaps Washington and Oregon elk have a chance.

Anyway, the outfitters' e-mail includes a story credited to www.GrayWolfNews.com from Feb. 5, 2011. The story, titled "Wolves Killing Oregon Elk" tells about the two people who saw wolf tracks, wolves and an apparent wolf-killed elk calf near Zumwalt Prairie, in the vicinity of Enterprise and Joseph. And it includes photos.

One e-mail photo shows hundreds of elk in a herd "near Pendleton" and "a short distance south of Walla Walla."

According to the e-mail: "This is the herd that has been wintering just above Pendleton, Oregon on Mckay Creek."

The e-mail predicts the herd will suffer severe "trimming" by wolves in the next few years.

Well, just in case, Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and I drove to McKay Creek Road to see the elk and, perhaps, the wolves.

On the way, we saw one apparently dead bull elk in a field and another clearly dead one along a roadside. Neither carcass, possibly winter kill, had been gnawed by wolves.

As we turned east from Sumac Road onto McKay Creek Road, 70 elk, give or take, spread along a distant ridge above the snow line and beyond a wide meadow.

I snapped a few photos, and we headed upstream past a "Dead End" sign. Soon we saw a golden eagle and magpies dining on wild turkey.

Then we counted four elk carcasses in a meadow, one with a leg tangled in a fence. None had visible gnaw marks.

McKay Creek ran high, with stretches of dramatic cliffs and rock formations on the north side. More than a dozen groups of 10-to-30 deer grazed on the hillsides.

We continued four miles to a fork and turned right (south). Near a ranch, we saw 30 turkeys and a dozen deer feeding on a rocky incline.

We drove five miles to road's end, and Nora got to sniff a pile of bones against a fence.

More winter kill, perhaps.

I whistled to get Nora's attention, and we climbed 100 yards up the hill for the view. Three whitetail deer pranced ahead of us, and six elk ogled our progress.

We drove back and saw 200-plus deer and a gazillion turkeys on the way. A group of 27-or-32 elk lounged on a low north-side ridge.

At Sumac Road again, we continued downstream to the end of McKay Creek Road, perhaps 10 miles altogether. Near Shaw Road, we counted two-dozen pheasants, mostly roosters.

We also saw three bald eagles, five golden eagles (or immature bald eagles), several dogs and no wolves.

On Shaw Road, we passed 21 deer a few yards from Darlene's window. I turned around, cruised slowly back and stopped.

The deer politely ignored the radio, the truck engine, the camera clicking and Nora dancing.

We turned north to complete a loop back to Mission.

At Red Hawk Road the apparently dead bull elk had apparently walked away. Apparently.

Anyway, we toured close to 100 miles on back roads in populated deer and elk country and saw no wolves.

Yet.

If You Go

To reach McKay Creek Road, take Oregon Highway 11 to the Mission turnoff. Continue straight beyond Interstate 84 on South Market Road until unpaved Red Hawk Road curves to the right. Turn left at the next road and bear left past the Spring Creek junction. Continue over steep, twisting Sumac Road uphill and down to McKay Creek Road on Umatilla Indian Reservation lands.

Contact Don Davis at dondavis@wwub.com. More of Don's photos can be found online at www.tripper.smugmug.com

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