Hooved inhabitant at home in Homestead | VailDaily.com

Hooved inhabitant at home in Homestead

Cliff Thompson
Vail Daily/Dominique TaylorA lone female elk seen here grazing on the side of Homestead Drive Thursday, has been sighted wandering around Homestead looking for food for the last month and is thought to have lost her herd and possible be sick.

EDWARDS – Neighbors in the Homestead are getting used to a new pet – a 300-pound cow elk that has taken to lounging on sidewalks, front lawns and driveways of this suburban neighborhood.They’ve even given her a name: Ellie.”She’s everywhere,” said resident New New Wallace. “It’s a little scary because she is getting more and more used to people. When she stands up, she’s big. She’s been sitting right on their doorsteps.”That solitary behavior is unusual for elk, which typically are herd animals who, if given a choice, don’t like to be near people. Bill Andree, a 25-year veteran Colorado Division of Wildlife officer, thinks the animal is ailing. He’s gotten about four calls a day for the last month about the animal, and has even attended a meeting of the Homestead Homeowner’s Association to talk about what should and should not be done, he said. That advice was included in a recent homeowner’s newsletter.”It’s definitely thin and having a hard time,” Andree said, adding that he doubts the animal is suffering from chronic wasting disease ,because it doesn’t show the symptoms of the fatal brain disease that affects deer and elk.A typical cow elk in good health can weigh about 450 pounds, he said.

Andree theorizes the animal may have been hit by a car last summer and spent the summer recovering instead of packing on fat to survive the winter, he said. In winter elk and other herd animals are always on a forced diet and lose weight throughout the season because there simply isn’t enough food, Andree said. If they don’t pack on enough fat in summer they don’t survive, he said.A warningBut Andree isn’t as worried about the elk as he is about the people who come too close to it. The animal could hurt or kill someone, he said. One instant the animal could be chewing its cud as contented a milk cow, and the next, it could become your worst nightmare, he said.

“They can rear up and strike with their front hooves so fast,” he said. “You will never see it coming. They can be docile one moment and the next they’ll stomp you. They’re powerful.”Elk have been pretty common in Edwards, Andree said. “They’ve always come and gone through here,” he said. This one, for whatever reason, stayed.”She’s as happy as she can be here,” said Wallace. “She eating everybody’s trees and bushes but nobody seems to mind.”Another Homestead resident, Alice Pankey, said the elk seems completely unafraid of humans.”She’ll be standing right next to someone’s house eating from their garden,” she said. “She’s completely unafraid. It’s odd behavior for a wild animal.Andree’s advice is simple: Leave the animal alone and let nature take its course. “It’s doing the best it can,” he said. “It has a good food source. As long as people leave it alone it will stay here until it can move off. It will either make it or it won’t.”

The elk dietIf the animal is disturbed by humans or dogs, it will expend more of the precious calories reacting to the disturbance, and further deplete what reserves it has. That could hasten its death, Andree said.The worst thing that can be done, as some Homestead residents have done, is to feed it, he said.”That could lead to less fear of people and that’s bad,” Andree said.Wallace said there have even been “elk jams” on Homestead roads as cars brake to a stop when the animal ambles across roads as it moves from yard to yard.It is possible the elk is suffering from old age or even bad teeth, Andree said. The latter makes it tougher for the animal to get good nutrition out of the food it eats because it can’t chew its forage as well.

If the animal becomes incapacitated and is unable to walk or unable to feed, Andree said, he would probably destroy the animal.But the animal’s condition may be improving, according to anecdotal evidence from neighbors in Homestead that have been watching the elk for the last month, Andree said.As the mountain valleys along Interstate 70 become more developed, elk and humans are being put in close proximity. In winter elk migrate from the High Country to valley floors that historically have been their critical winter habitat. But those valley floors now contain homes instead of forage.Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or cthompson@vaildaily.comVail, Colorado

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