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One of the most popular wildlife-viewing opportunities of the year will get started Saturday when the state's annual Rocky Mountain Elk Festival will be held at Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area in Cache County.

The ranch opens Friday to the public for elk viewing and wagon rides. The festival is Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wildlife biologists will be on hand to talk about the elk and other species that call the area around the ranch home.

Family craft projects will also be held during the festival and include using local plants like sagebrush and bitterbrush to make Christmas ornaments; pinecone bird feeders and painted fish replicas.

The state bought the original Hardware Ranch in 1945 from the Box Elder Hardware Co., thus the current name, to create a winter elk feeding and holding area. The idea was to keep elk from wandering down Blacksmith Fork Canyon and into the hay piles ranchers were holding for livestock.

Elk have become accustomed to the feeding and gather in large numbers at Hardware Ranch each winter. Locals from Cache County realized the impressive mammals were hanging out at the ranch and began making the trip to see the elk. Eventually, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources started catering to the public with horse-drawn sleigh rides (or wagon rides when there is not enough snow). More recently, the state started holding the free elk festival.

Elk are not always on the ranch and typically gather en masse — an average of about 350 each winter — when the snow grows deep and their traditional food selection is hard to find.

Hardware Ranch Manager Brad Hunt said elk have been hanging around the slopes around the meadow where the rides are held and the feeding takes place. He encourages people to bring binoculars and spotting scopes if they have them in case the elk are still a little skittish.

"Between 100 and 150 elk have been on the benches since the first part of November," he said. "Hopefully, they'll move down into the meadow by the time the festival starts."

Ranch staffers feed the elk about 10 pounds of food per animal each day with hay grown on the ranch and augmented with alfalfa.

Biologists also use the congregation of elk for research purposes including testing for brucellosis and tuberculosis and elk pregnancy research.

Horse-drawn rides at Hardware Ranch

P The state-owned Hardware Ranch, 18 miles east of Hyrum on State Route 101 in Cache County, will start offering horse-drawn sleigh or wagon rides Friday. Tickets are $5 for ages 9 and older, and $3 for ages 4-8. The rides are only offered Friday and Monday (noon to 4:30 p.m.) and Saturday and Sunday (10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.). People may visit the ranch on other days, but the visitor center will not be open. >

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