Golf course dwellers OK, experts say
ASPEN – When some people see elk hanging out on a snow-covered golf course, they figure that the cold, snowy winter is taking a toll on wildlife.Don’t fret, wildlife experts said Thursday, the deer and elk in and around the Roaring Fork Valley are doing just fine.Kevin Wright, a longtime local officer with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, estimated there have been about 250 elk browsing at the Aspen Glen and Iron Bridge golf courses and the surrounding area. “That’s a very small percentage of the overall population,” he said.Between 3,500 and 4,000 elk are spread out on winter range between the Castle Creek Valley southwest of Aspen and South Canyon west of Glenwood Springs, Wright said.
The vast majority of the animals s are staying in the high country and foraging on south-facing slopes.Smaller groups of “opportunists” have discovered the fertilized fairways of the golf courses and taken up winter residence there, he said. It’s not that they are lazy, Wright said, they just choose to go for the easier meal.Division spokesman Randy Hampton likened the elk on the golf courses to teenagers given a choice between a health food store or an ice cream parlor. Most of the teens will go for ice cream.The splinter group of elk hanging out on the golf courses is highly visible. Thousands of commuters on Highway 82 check their moves every day. The actions of some of the animals have befuddled even Wright. Some are camped out on a property where vegetation was scraped off two years ago for a golf community that since has been aborted.”I don’t know why those elk are there,” Wright said.
He speculated that the weeds that have proliferated on the property might have nutritious seed heads that attract the elk. The areas also provide pretty good refuge from disturbance, although dogs occasionally harass the elk, Wright said.He said he has little concern about the elk on the golf courses getting too comfortable around humans. They tolerate the conditions because the food is so good.The snowpack is spotty around the Roaring Fork basin, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. The site closest to Aspen shows a snowpack slightly above average for Feb. 1. But three sites nearby are below average. The basin overall was at 87 percent of average Thursday.Hampton said it isn’t so much the depth of the snowpack but the way the winter has evolved in western Colorado that could create interesting conditions for wildlife. Snow fell early this winter and stuck because of cold weather. The lower Roaring Fork Valley has held snow more consistently this winter than in recent years.That early snow cover could make conditions tough on deer, in particular, if February and March are as cold and snowy as they generally are in Colorado’s mountains, Hampton said.
Deer and elk store energy in the fall to survive the winter. When they use more of that energy in a tough early winter, they have fewer reserves for the second half. If the winter turns severe, fawns and calves could die off, and reproduction rates could drop, Hampton said. “Nature has a way of making sure mom survives,” he said.Weary wildlifeWinter has been roughest for wildlife this year in southeastern Colorado. Blizzards right before and right after Christmas left deep snow. Pronghorns, deer and elk bunched up on railroads and roadways after the blizzards. The wildlife division reported that trains struck about 200 pronghorns in the Las Animas area and 41 elk struck by trains near Trinidad.Wildlife officers packed refuges away from the tracks with snowcats and snowmobiles, then lured the animals to the safe havens with food pellets.