Lost herd’s an ecological truth | VailDaily.com

Lost herd’s an ecological truth

Alan Braunholtz

Seven hundred pounds, 5 feet at the shoulder where a hump of muscle pushes up a dense shaggy coat stretching from a tan rear end to broad sinewy neck. Elk look to be proud and powerful animals.

Recently a small herd of 20 or so have been sheltering on the Ford Park softball fields in Vail. While I am always thrilled to catch glimpses of such an animal, it’s a sad sight. This forlorn, clustered herd heads down on a baseball diamond as cars slow and stop to gawk at them. I’m a total gawker where wildlife is concerned, but they’d look so much better in an aspen meadow.

They remind me of a famous painting in which Native American chief sits on a rocky shore with his family and few possessions, gazing across the Pacific Ocean. There is nowhere left to go and his time is at an end.

Early explorers reported huge herds of elk. The miners wiped these out. Reintroduced in the 1900s, the herds grew again and now number over 200,000 in Colorado. Without natural predators they flourish in the parks but have to compete against cattle and habitat loss elsewhere. In the big picture elk are probably doing fine, but locally we’re driving them out as we develop their winter range.

Though almost everyone is in favor of wildlife, these are empty words unless we’re prepared to back them up with actions that are usually inconvenient and costly.

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The highway department has a sign in East Vail warning drivers to slow down, as the elk may be crossing the interstate. I’ve yet to see anyone slow down, showing little concern for the elk or themselves.

One of the joys of dog ownership is walking with the dog. But ask dog owners not to let pets run loose on cold mornings when it’s inconvenient to walk them or leash them when in wildlife areas and you’ll get blank stares. Dogs are a big deal to elk and deer. In winter any extra effort to avoid a yapping annoyance (subsidized predator) can be deadly waste of stored food.

In winter most animals are using fat reserves, hoping they last till spring. An elk builds this fat by high quality and quantity grazing all summer. Too many disturbances by dogs, overly curious hikers, ATVs, etc., and the elk may not eat enough to survive a tough winter.

Leashing a dog and driving slower aren’t costly choices to make, but few of us make them. Faced with this apathy, there’s really not much chance that we’ll make the costlier choices of planned development and environmental consideration (habitat preservation, waste management, greater efficiency, less wasteful consumption, recycling) that would allow us to live here and accommodate, say, a herd of elk.

“There is no free lunch” is a favorite saying. I find this ironic as at the moment we treat the environment as a free lunch, amusement park and trash can.

No one is considering the deferred costs of how we’re choosing to live. A gallon of gasoline costs a lot more than the price at the pump. The indirect costs include the hospital bills for your child’s asthma, acid rain damage, increased insurance premiums due to climate change and a host of future problems we are in denial over. We’re subsidizing our economic prosperity with ecological deficits that someone sometime will have to pay.

What’s this got to do with a bunch of elk? Well that isolated herd on the softball fields, searching for a place to winter, is a symbol of what’s paying for some of this valley’s prosperity. The elk, the streams, the fish, the air, the open space, the quality of life. Locally does this matter? There’s more water, air and elk and we can always import them from outside. This is effectively what the environment does for us.

Globally, it’s different. There is no outside to bail us out. If we’re not aware of the true costs, then we risk being very surprised by our corrupt accounting system.

As Oystein Dahle, former VP of Exxon in Europe’s North Sea, said: “Socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth.”

Lost herds of elk are part of our ecological truth.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.

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