Taking change in long-legged stride
With binoculars perched on her living room window sill, Minturn resident Karen Kidd is ready at any moment for a peek at wildlife. Though many people feel lucky seeing one elk, Kidd had a movable feast for her eyes nearly every day in November and December. Her apartment’s living room looks out to the slopes north of Minturn, the winter range of choice for one of Eagle County’s elk herds. Kidd, a design engineer, spent many a late morning eating her breakfast as the herd grazed on those south-facing, scrub-brush-rich slopes.
“It’s interesting to see 30 elk doing their thing from your house,” said Kidd, noting how normally she would expect to see elk on a backcountry hike, not from her home in the middle of civilization.
The group that Kidd has been watching is part of about 300 elk that migrate around Minturn, Vail’s Back Bowls, and up to Vail Pass – one of a handful of herds in Eagle County.
While Kidd has only gotten to know the Minturn herd since she moved up from Boulder less than a year ago, Bill Andree, officer for the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW), has been studying the local elk herds since 1985. In that time, he has seen a lot of change in Eagle County, and has seen the county’s elk population change accordingly.
In 1985, Edwards didn’t have much more than the Gashouse, the Eagle County Airport was still being built, quad chairlifts were a novelty, and more of Vail’s workforce lived in Vail than Eagle and Gypsum. Twenty years later much of what was open space has turned into houses, yards, and intersections … some of which was prime winter habitat for elk.
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According to Andree, the mid-valley elk herd no longer uses Bachelor Gulch as their winter home. In the mid-1990s, houses and chairlifts there became too much for the elks’ taste. In 1996, that herd decided to cross I-70 to find a new winter range on the more secluded north side of the highway. That crossing has since become their annual migration pattern. Two hundred elk cross the interstate every year, resulting in more car accidents and more elk deaths. I-70 has been shut down a number of times due to elk-related car accidents, Andree said.
“Winter is the limiting factor,” Andree said of the elk life cycle. While powder days may be good for skiers and riders, snow covers up plants and grasses that elk eat. That’s why the elk seek out south and west-facing slopes where the sun keeps the snowpack lower, and the exposed food more available.
“Deer and elk are on a starvation diet in the winter,” Andree said, noting that any excess activity can hurt the animals’ chances for survival. “Anytime dogs or humans disturb the elk, they’re making those elk burn extra calories.”
As Eagle County’s human population has doubled twice since the 1980s, more people and more dogs in the valley mean more stressful encounters for the elk.
Andree did note the greatest factor affecting local elk have been the string of mild winters in recent years, as compared to the harsher ones when the studies first took place. Despite this year’s extra snow, those mild winters have allowed the elk herds to blossom. They have grown over the years to a point where CDOW now will take steps to reduce their numbers in Eagle County, said Pat Tucker, the local area wildlife manager. Hunting licenses and hunting seasons are the main tools they use to control elk herds, Tucker said.
However, is this over-population a result of the herds growing so big, or the available open space getting smaller? “Ten years ago there was less development and more open space,” Tucker said, citing that available winter habitat plays a factor in determining how many elk the valley can support.
“They’re not making any more winter range for those animals,” Andree said. With a shrinking winter habitat, more encounters with humans, and new migrations over four-lane highways, things may look bleak for our antlered friends.
Despite all that, Tucker is optimistic about the elks’ future here. “We have more people being more vocal about wildlife concerns,” he said, citing recent pushes toward open space and regulating development. “There’s good hope for wildlife in Eagle County.”
In the meantime, wildlife watcher Kidd hasn’t seen any elk from her apartment for almost a month. Having moved on, the Minturn elk are likely searching for lush slopes where the grasses and scrub brush aren’t as covered by this winter’s record-breaking snowfall. VT
Kelly Coffey is a frequent contributor to The Vail Trail. E-mail comments about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.