Utah’s warm winter has forced the state’s popular elk-viewing wagon rides in Hyrum to close this weekend as the Hardware Ranch elk herd heads to the hills weeks earlier than usual.
Wagon rides through the meadows of the Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area will end Saturday, Feb. 10, according to the state Division of Wildlife Resources. Rides had been scheduled to continue until Feb. 26.
Only 90 elk in the herd of 700 remained in the meadows as of this week, said Hardware Ranch WMA manager Brad Hunt.
“They’re moving to the hills above the meadows,” Hunt said. “And they’re acting anxious to move to even higher county.”
That usually doesn’t happen until March, he said in a news statement.
State wildlife managers grow hay in the meadow in summer and harvest it to feed elk in winter to keep the herd from foraging in Cache County’s farms and neighborhoods.
“They’re acting quite fidgety,” Phil Douglass, DWR conservation outreach manager, said in an interview. “The warm weather is getting them so they want to move to higher country. When we put the [hay] down they usually come running down to where the feed is. The last few days they’ve been hanging out in the foothills, not interested in the feed we’re putting down.”
With unseasonably warm temperatures expected to continue for the foreseeable future, there probably won’t be more elk to see this season, Hunt said. Meanwhile, the meadow — at 6,300 feet elevation in the mountains of northern Utah — has lost the protection of snow.
“The meadow is also getting really muddy,” Hunt said. “If we keep running wagons over it, we’ll likely damage the meadow grasses that we’ll harvest this summer so we can feed elk next winter.”
The wagon rides, which typically draw 30,000 visitors each winter are the latest casualty of a winter that weather scientists say is one of the warmest ever in Utah.
Last weekend, the state announced it was cancelling its annual ice fishing tournament at central Utah’s Fish Lake because the ice was not thick enough for the anticipated crowd of 2,000 anglers. The lake is at nearly 8,900 feet elevation. One day after that cancellation, the Midway Ice Castles in Wasatch County closed for the season; during its month-long run this year, it occasionally cancelled daytime tours because of high temperatures. At nearby Soldier Hollow, thin snow conspired with snowmaking malfunctions to force some Nordic skiing events to cancel or change venues.
This winter is the second warmest since scientists in Salt Lake City began recording temperatures in 1874, according to the National Weather Service.