A handful of students from Yakima Christian Academy took advantage of one of the area’s most unusual educational opportunities Wednesday afternoon at Oak Creek Wildlife Area.

The kids went out on a tour truck as hundreds of elk milled about the field, then sauntered over to piles of hay dumped by massive trucks making their daily rounds. Afterward, teacher Beth Everhart and her class went inside the visitor center out of the rain to watch the elk and learn more about them from eager volunteers.

“It’s very fascinating,” Everhart said. “I’d never thought the feeding was to keep them on this side so they didn’t go into the orchards.”

Volunteer Paul Hudson said that’s the most important message he imparts to visitors at the winter feeding site where site manager Greg Mackey and three employees began distributing hay on Jan. 15. Hudson’s wife, first-year volunteer Cathy Hudson, noted that Rocky Mountain elk in Washington were reintroduced by train in 1915 after hunters nearly extirpated the population in the 19th century.

The state can be held responsible for damage to large-scale agricultural crops, so Mackey and his staff monitor three feed sites, distributing hay donated to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife from Alcoa Metals near Spokane as well as some the agency purchased from Ellensburg. Already as many as 600 elk have appeared at Oak Creek, along with 1,400 at the Cowiche site and close to another 200 in the Nile area.

Mackey anticipates many more will arrive over the coming weeks, particularly when the temperatures begin to drop again and more snow falls to cover up alternative food sources. Heavy snow last February and March brought down some 1,100 elk from Yakima’s shrinking herd to the Oak Creek site.

Poor calf recruitment continues to be a major concern for local wildlife department biologist Jeff Bernatowicz and others after the herd’s numbers dropped to an estimated 8,231 according to last winter’s surveys, well below the objective of 9,500. Visitors often ask volunteers and Mackey about the outlook for the local herd, but even though it’s difficult to tell this early when the elk remain skittish and difficult to count, he hasn’t had much good news to share.

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“First impressions out here is that it’s not good,” said Mackey, noting calf recruitment looks to be below 20% when it needs to be in the mid-30s for the population to grow. “The same that it’s been the last couple years.”

If those numbers don’t improve, it will mean more negative consequences for hunters, many of whom have already been expressing their frustration with far fewer permits available last fall. Mackey understands those concerns and acknowledged it’s an ongoing problem with no clear solution.

However, those issues didn’t seem to be affect the popularity of winter feeding at Oak Creek during a busy opening weekend. After 325 people arrived on Saturday, more than 500 visitors showed up on Sunday and another 261 stopped by the site west of Naches on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when volunteers conducted 11 tours.

Oak Creek secured a two-year, $20,000 grant from the state to pay for travel costs for its volunteers, most of whom Mackey said are retired or on a fixed income. He lost that funding last winter, which made keeping people a little more difficult.

“We’re kind of a ways from town, so it incentivizes people to come out here,” Mackey said.

Despite the rain that slowly turned into a wet snow on Wednesday, a handful of people gathered along the fence to watch elk meander across the field, forming two lines when the food arrived. While some animals walked across through the truck paths in the middle, most focused on eating, either keeping their head low to the hay or standing up and chewing lazily while keeping an eye on their surroundings.

Less than an hour after the hay had been delivered, a few could be seen starting to head back up the hill, something Mackey said could happen more this week with temperatures expected to rise into the 40s. Eventually, though, the draw of a reliable food source during the cold winter will bring them back, creating a scene difficult to find almost anywhere else.

Reach Luke Thompson at luthompson@yakimaherald.com and on Twitter: @luketscribe