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Hike of the Week: Can you find fresh Aspen scars?

This week's trail challenge is to look for barking — and we're not talking about dogs

Nathan Boyer-Rechlin
Walking Mountains Science Center

This week’s trail challenge is to explore a local trail (or your backyard aspen grove) and search for signs of recent “barking” — the stripping of an aspen’s bark by elk, deer, or moose for food. Take a photo of what you find and share on Instagram using the hashtag #wmsctrailchallenge, or email your photos to hike@walkingmountains.org.

What is barking?

As winter grinds on in the Colorado High Country, food becomes scarce for the hardy species that choose to wait out our long winters. For three of our region’s most prolific over-wintering species, mule deer, moose and elk, the late fall and winter food of choice is a mix of woody twigs and shrubs. Annual shrubs, willows and dogwoods growing in creek valleys, and other woody vegetation, are all popular forage for these ungulates. However, as the snowpack continues to deepen through March and into early spring, previously prosperous grazing grounds turn into a food desert.

In late winter and early spring, when our snowpack is at its deepest, aspen groves hold the key to survival. As anyone who has listened to a Colorado naturalist for at least 30 seconds probably knows, Aspen trees can photosynthesize through their bark.

They have a layer of green chlorophyll in their thin outer layer of bark (protected by the sunscreen-like powder that gives their bark its white appearance) that converts the sun’s energy into sugars. As such, the aspen’s cambium, or thin inner layer of bark, is particularly nutritious. It may not be a fan favorite for these species and is considered a starvation food, however, in these late winter months, Aspen bark is a key to survival.

Elk, deer, and moose will strip the outer layer of bark with their front teeth, and chew the cambium. You can see evidence of this in almost any aspen grove from the dark vertical scars on an aspen’s trunk, often around chest height. However, in this time of year when Aspen bark is the food of necessity, it is also common to see fresh barking. Look for aspen with small-to-large areas of its bark stripped revealing the white inner bark. If you look close you should even be able to see the vertical gnaw marks of the animal’s teeth!

Any trail that travels through an aspen forest is a good place to start your search for these animal signs. The aspen right in your backyard may be less likely to serve as food — especially if the shrubs in your front yard are looking healthy and tasty.

I have seen a lot of recent barking in the woods recently. Trails such as Maloit Park and Grouse Creek in Minturn or June Creek, East Lake Creek, and Squaw Creek near Edwards are all good places to look. So get outside, explore a new trail or wander around your local aspen grove and see if you can find where our valley’s elk, deer and moose have been feasting.

Nathan Boyer-Rechlin is the community outreach coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. Find Nathan exploring the trails any day of the week.


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