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Home on the golf range

David L'Heureux
Walt Marquez/Special to the Daily The elk that move into Eagle Ranch in the winter can be stressed by human activity even though most residents do nothing to purposely harm the animals.
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EAGLE – Each winter, when the temperature starts dropping and the snow starts falling, a new set of neighbors move into the Eagle Ranch subdivision – big, quarter-ton neighbors. The elk that spend their winters in and around the area offer an up-close view of what happens when man and beast live in the same neighborhood. While the co-existence is generally amiable, problems can arise when residential developments begin to creep into natural wildlife habitat.Not surprisingly, the negative repercussions are usually greater to the elk than to man. So the question remains: Can we all get along?Stressed out animalsHunting season aside, it would be hard to find anyone that wants to do harm to the elk. But, according to Craig Wescoatt, district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, even people with the best of intentions can unknowingly harm the animals during their most stressful time of year. It doesn’t take much to spook the winter-weary elk. And maintaining a low, steady heart rate is crucial to their survival at a time of year when food is scarce. “I can guarantee those elk are stressed out by people, even though they don’t show the normal flight pattern,” said Wescoatt, who supports the seasonal closures of Eagle open space lands to winter recreation seekers. Much of the town’s open space is classified as critical elk winter range. “People hiking, biking, snowshoeing or whatever, cause more stress to the elk than a car. The closer the proximity to the elk, the more of an effect you are having on them,” said Wescoatt.Perhaps the biggest problem the Colorado Division of Wildlife deals with is dogs off leashes – a violation of town law. The already winter-weary elk burn a lot of unnecessary calories trying to get away from dogs, said Wescoatt. Some people don’t see their four-legged pets as a threat to anybody, much less a large elk. Town open space coordinator Bill Heicher says some people don’t understand these creatures and the lands they inhabit.”The people that don’t understand seasonal closures are usually a little ignorant,” said Heicher. “They really don’t know the history of the area. They are fairly new, they don’t know why that area was set aside in the first place.”However, Wescoatt credits residents and developers at Eagle Ranch for informing their neighbors and the general public about the true nature of the situation, making the community fairly wildlife friendly.”People, for the most part, have been extremely tolerant,” said Wescoatt. “Eagle Ranch has impressed me. They have a committee to try to improve peoples’ living with the wildlife. I think the majority of people like the elk, but they get frustrated with losing landscaping and having their winter recreation limited.”

There are misunderstandings, said Assistant Town Planner Bill Gray, because people think the elk can just go somewhere else. They can’t, and the town of Eagle has taken measures to make sure they won’t have to because of human interference, he said. “At this point the town’s position is pretty strong that that’s how we want to maintain the area,” Gray said. More than the fuzzy crittersLost landscaping and damaged property is a common complaint from Eagle Ranch residents. However, most viewed that as a small trade-off for the many benefits of life with the elk.Victor Galko, a 20-year resident of Eagle who recently built a home at Eagle Ranch, loves the elk.”I think it’s wonderful having the elk in our backyard,” said Galko, who restores art and antiques. “At any given time, we can have 300 elk coming through our backyard. They eat some of my foliage, then they move on.”Galko said he spends about one weekend in the fall fencing off his trees to reduce damage to landscaping in his yard. It’s a small price to pay, he said.Recently, Galko heard something going bump in the night outside his back door. In many towns and cities in America, that would be reason to call 911. For Galko and his wife, Kim, the noise was not cause for alarm.”It was so cool. The other night, I hear a loud bumping and snorting noise outside my window,” Galko said. “I get up and look outside and there are six elk about four feet from my window. If you don’t like that kind of thing, you are living in the wrong place.”Fellow Eagle Ranch resident Ken Neubecker has his own take on the elk – and the multitude of other wildlife he sees behind his home.”I’m the nuisance, not the elk,” he said. “I’ve tried to build my yard here along the lines of a backyard habitat for birds and everything else. It is a great part of living here.”Neubecker thinks some people just want to attract the “pleasant” wildlife, when the reality of life close to the wilderness is an entire eco-system, he said. “You can’t just have the cute, fuzzy creatures,” said Neubecker. “The elk, and coyotes, and bears, and hawks are also part of the mix.”

The favorite treat for the elk in Neubecker’s backyard are the mungo pines, which he says are “like candy” for them.Walt Marquez is the head of Eagle Ranch maintenance at Eagle Ranch golf course and a resident of the neighborhood. He has a unique perspective on the area’s winter inhabitants.”They are pretty to see but they are troublesome for the course,” said Marquez. “We spend quite a bit of time in the fall getting the trees and tees and greens protected from the elk. But the animals are amazing, I love having them.”Marquez also takes numerous photos of the elk, and has been called “an ambassador for the elk,” by Wescoatt. His main concern right now is one that both Heicher and Wescoatt also talked about. “There have been some dogs chasing elk this winter,” said Marquez. “There is a leash law and some people don’t follow it.”His wife, Jenni, said the presence of the elk has solidified her reasons for living here.”I love sharing my space with the elk,” she said. “After living in the Vail area for over 26 years and not seeing an elk for the first 23, they are fascinating to watch and listen to. It’s a special experience not many people have in their lifetime.”Like Marquez, Eagle Ranch Director of Golf Jeff Boyer sees two sides of his seasonal neighbors.”I grew up hunting elk and deer, so I always think it’s great to see wildlife,” said Boyer, who has a home at Eagle Ranch. “From the standpoint of managing a golf course, it’s something else we have to deal with. They definitely trash the course.”They aren’t alligatorsBoyer’s main concerns about the golf course are the droppings and urine spots that appear with the spring thaw. Damage to tees and greens is another problem, especially if elk continue to come down in the early spring, after the course has been opened, he said.”A couple of years ago we opened April 12 and took the ropes down,” said Boyer. “A herd must have walked right across five green and they trashed it.”As far as cost to the course goes, Boyer estimates that Eagle ranch spends about $30,000 a year taking preventative measures and repairing damage. For Boyer, his staff and the owners of the golf course, it’s just part of the cost of living in the mountains, and well worth it.

“If we were in Florida, we would have to deal with alligators,” said Boyer, who jokes that so far no elk have attacked any people. “Overall, it’s great. It’s an attraction, and it’s just part of being here.”Jenni Marquez said the elk are hard on the landscaping, particularly unprotected trees and shrub. She also said their droppings “can make walks on the neighborhood path a little tricky.” More seriously for the elk, there loss in life has been significant in the last year. Heicher said eight elk have been killed or put down – six from vehicles, and two from strangulation on ropes. The impacts on the elk are clearly greater than on humans.Stay or go? As long as people continue to learn about and respect the elk and their habits, Wescoatt said, he sees no reason why the two species can’t live in relative harmony.Eagle Ranch head Gary Martinez said the discussions he heard at the open space forums last summer were enlightening. Martinez said he had some about the closures and the until he learned more about what the animals endure. “When you hear about the issues you understand,” said Martinez, also an Eagle Ranch resident. Eagle Ranch provides home buyers with a packet describing the types of wildlife in the area, and how to best live peacefully with the animals. That has been a tremendous help, Wescoatt said. No one truly knows what will happen as development continues. The elk could continue their habits and spend winters on the fairways, greens, and yards adjacent to the course. But he elk may – as they have at Arrowhead, Eagle Vail and Cordillera – find that Eagle Ranch is too crowded and move back into the hills or to another low-lying area in the vicinity.Town planner Gray sums up the fleeting nature of Eagle’s life with the elk.”At some point we will probably run into the problem that all the elk will leave,” said Gray. “Then people will come to us, or whoever else is here, and demand we bring them back.”Vail, Colorado


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