In the 25 years she has fed elk on the Millville Face, rancher Jacky Hancey had never seen a more gorgeous collection of bulls than the bunch that came in regularly last winter.
"We've never had that many bulls," Hancey said, noting that at least 30 of the 72 bulls in the group had antlers of six points or better. "That herd really drew a lot of attention last year."
It's unlikely that the turnout will be as impressive this winter, though, because state wildlife officials plan to reduce the number of elk on the face in an attempt to resuscitate the region's flagging mule deer herd.
Last year the Division of Wildlife Resources planted 5,000 bitterbrush plants on the hillsides south of Millville Canyon to encourage deer to utilize the area in winter. Officials recently told the volunteers who run the feeding operation that the number of elk on the face must be reduced to avoid trampling the new plants.
"We decided we needed to get aggressive and get in and start rehabbing on our own wildlife management areas," said Justin Dolling, DWR's Northern Region wildlife manager. "And given that mule deer across the Intermountain West are struggling and elk are thriving ... we felt our resources would be better suited to provide winter mule deer habitat than elk feeding."
The state will probably allow more hunting in the area this fall to reduce elk numbers and push the survivors toward Hardware Ranch, Dolling said. Ideally, he added, there wouldn't be more than 75 elk in the area, and if that total went down to 25 it would give the new plants an even better chance.
None of that mollified Hancey, 77, a Millville rancher who began feeding elk in 1983.
Her father, a game warden at the time, helped build a fence to keep elk away from farmers' fields and implemented a feeding program after several hundred elk died that winter. In those days the state was attempting to increase the elk population, and with official blessing but not much in the way of financial assistance Hancey maintained the feeding tradition.
"It's become quite a nice herd of elk, and this disgusts me," Hancey said. "I don't think we should sit still for this. They're part of our heritage and they need to be there."
Hancey argued that the Millville Face "has never been a nice, green mountain, and it's never gonna be," something Dolling disagreed with.
In the 1950s and 1960s, he said, the hills east of Millville were covered with sagebrush and the occasional juniper tree.
"Historically, that was productive winter range for mule deer," Dolling said. "We didn't buy that property to feed and winter elk, we bought it for the south-facing slopes" that give mule deer a place to forage in the sun during the winter.
Dolling acknowledged that the state at one time encouraged elk feeding but said that two things have changed in recent decades: The division adopted a policy of not feeding big game except in "emergency" situations, and the deer herd in northern Utah began to rapidly decline.
"We really appreciate what that group of sportsmen has done the last 20 years. They've done a great job with very little resources," Dolling said. "Millville just needs a break from intensive grazing by big game."
Dolling said DWR is considering four methods of what he called "selective pressure" to reduce the Millville herd, starting with extending the cow elk hunt through January and allowing hunters who are on the alternate list for a South Cache bull to instead hunt above Millville.
If herd numbers are still high and the winter is tough, he said, biologists will trap and move cows and calves, and if conditions get worse yet they will tranquilize and move bulls. Since the state runs a feeding operation at Hardware Ranch, just 15 or so miles away as the elk walks, officials would like to see the majority of elk winter there, as far away as possible from highways and haystacks.
The decision doesn't mean the state will kill off elk just to benefit deer, Dolling said, as the goal for the Cache unit will remain at 2,300 elk. But DWR has already taken steps to focus on mule deer, planting WMA fields in Richmond that had been used to grow hay to feed elk with brush and forbs to entice deer.
Broc Bryson of Millville, who has been a feeding volunteer for five years, said the value of the feeding program goes beyond just helping elk through the winter. Feeding allows local groups like the Boy Scouts and hundreds of other volunteers get involved with wildlife, he said,
The program is powered almost entirely by private donations of time, feed and equipment, and many people have formed an emotional bond with the herd.
"Obviously we've worked a long time, and Jacky and her family more than anybody, to help those elk," Bryson said. "I'd like to see the opportunity to help them get through the winter."
Feeding on the face also keeps elk up high out of harm's way, he said, adding that if the state insists on clearing them out, he would prefer that they move the animals, "rather than just shooting them all."
Hancey is hoping that sportsmen will step up and organize a defense of the program, although many hunters are also invested in boosting the deer herd.
Dolling said that the state will support the elk feeding program this winter if necessary, but would like to see the population cut to the point that feeding isn't required.
"I know that folks have built a strong tradition for feeding elk there, but we have to try to put emotions aside and try to do what's best for wildlife," he said.