Vail Curious Nature: Trails close to protect elk
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colorado –June is a busy month for everybody in Colorado’s Vail Valley. School is letting out and summer plans are getting into full swing. The weather during this time is unpredictable, with early morning sunshine giving way to violent and quick moving storms that whip through the valleys and drop snow on the peaks.
Our white-rumped neighbors, the elk, are also busy during this time. They have made it through the winter and the spring migration to find greener land. But there’s no time to celebrate the victory over winter as the elk prepare to migrate to their summer feeding grounds, hoping to make the journey safely, avoiding threats from predation, weather, and well-meaning humans.
The herds of elk that inhabit our valley are the ultimate nomads. The cold forces them from their summer mountain homes on an annual pilgrimage to the valley floors where the snow isn’t as deep and at least some meager forage is available. As the winter snows begin to melt, the elk prepare to migrate to the higher mountain meadows where the vegetation is lush and the days are long. They follow the same routes year after year, tracing the footsteps of the herds that came before them.
Migrating elk, particularly the pregnant cows, are particularly vulnerable during this time of year. Traveling presents many challenges and the elk herds are governed by the weather, predators and the greening vegetation. To add to the challenge, pregnant cows must stop to give birth along the way. The cows leave the herd and birth their tiny, spotted calves in a secret location, one not frequented by other elk.
The newborn calves are wobbly on their long legs at first, and can’t run fast or far. Mother elk go to great pains to protect their calves, eating the placenta along with any soil or vegetation that might have absorbed fluids from the birth, and then keeping the site clean by eating their calves’ feces.
Cows continue to protect their young’s secret location by grazing away from the hiding spot, returning only to allow the calves to nurse. When the calves are fast enough to keep up with the adults and outrun predators, they join the herd with their mothers. Stealth and secrecy are their only assets during this precarious time.
During this vulnerable time in the life of the elk, local areas are closed to human recreation in order to offer this species the solitude and sanctity they need to protect themselves. The dangers are many, and a stray hiker looking for a picnic area could create havoc with the mother cow’s carefully chosen location. Predators startled off the beaten trail could discover a hidden calf or picnickers relaxing in the sunshine might keep a mother elk from returning to nurse her calf.
Trails are closed for an important reason. These signs are not meant to be barriers to fun, adventure and fitness. They are intended to help us develop our connection to the land – by giving wildlife this short time each year to carry on in the most basic of life’s rituals – that of giving birth.
In our history as humans on this planet, we have already learned so much about how our actions impact it. We share our valley with the elk herds and their wild friends, who are our neighbors, as well as contributors to the local economy. Our respect and appreciation for wild places reminds us that their fate is inextricably connected to our own.
“So,” as Ed Abbey once said, “get out there and hunt and fish with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air.” Just remember to follow the rules while you’re out there so that everyone can breathe that sweet and lucid air.
Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate programs at Gore Range Natural Science School (www.gorerange.org). She lives in Eagle and always obeys trail signs. The Gore Range Natural Science School’s Curious Nature column appears Mondays in the Vail Daily and on http://www.vaildaily.com.