The latest non-human casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic is the horse-drawn sleigh rides at Hardware Ranch.
The decision was made after consulting with the Bear River Health Department due to potential issues with distancing efforts and trying to limit exposure to individuals from different households as they came to see the 500-600 elk who winter at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources’s Hardware Ranch in Blacksmith Fork Canyon.
“On a typical Saturday, we can have anywhere between 800 and 1,200 people, and that just wasn’t very practical,” said Brad Hunt, who manages the Wildlife Management Area. “We wouldn’t be able to offer a very good visitor experience that way. So as difficult as it was, we ultimately decided the best course of action was to not offer the sleigh rides.”
Staff are working to create both an information guide for visitors, full of facts about the elk and the area, and a “nature’s treasure hunt” activity for kids to learn more about the native species in the canyon just east of Hyrum.
Hunt said the Utah DWR started feeding the elk in the 1940s or ‘50s, and the sleigh and wagon rides started not too long after. They were put on hold for a brief period in the 1970s as the visitor’s center was being built.
The sleigh rides — and all of the usual events hosted at Hardware Ranch, like special holiday events for local municipalities, the Elk Festival and the Smoke Pole Biathlon — have also been axed. The visitor’s center, however, will be open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Friday through Sunday, starting Dec. 4 with high-risk individuals given priority until noon.
“Waiting until noon will allow those who are high-risk to enjoy the center with fewer people inside,” Hunt stated in the press release.
While the majority of visitors to Hardware Ranch live in the northern regions of Utah, the sleigh rides and seeing the herds of elk were a draw for tourists, according to Laura Johnson with the Cache Valley Visitors Bureau, who was saddened by the decision.
“They’re canceling everything on us,” Johnson said. “I would think being outside and having a mask, that that wouldn’t affect it up there, but I get they’re trying to be safe as well.”
Despite the disappointment some residents are feeling due to the precautions, Hunt hopes the center has a good turnout for the season.
“It can be a little stir crazy,” Hunt said. “I have young children of my own, and keeping them locked up in the house, they’re going crazy. So come up and enjoy the fresh air, and enjoy what nature is providing, enjoy watching the elk go for a hike, play in the snow, cross your fingers we have snow, and just practice safe social distancing while you’re up here.”
Though the visitors center will only be open on weekends, the elk can be observed from the area any day of the week. Visitors will need to bring their own scopes or binoculars, regardless.