Vail Daily column: Elk may be moving into your neighborhood
Vail, CO Colorado
As residents of Eagle County, we are fortunate to live in a spectacular place where we can observe natural cycles that have occurred over the centuries. As winter begins to set in, one of these natural cycles is the variety of animal migrations and movements that occur, and elk are one of the most majestic to observe.
In our valley, elk move throughout the day and seasons, rather than undertake real migrations. From a biological standpoint, migrations occur over a defined geographic corridor, typically due to a change in seasons. An example of a historical local migration is the east to west seasonal migration of mule deer from the Vail area to Avon, Edwards and further west. Tens of thousands of deer used to migrate along this corridor, one to two miles to the north of the Eagle River. Mule deer still migrate along this route in much smaller numbers, aided by the I-70 underpass between Dowd Junction and West Vail and the fabric along the bike path in this area.
Elk tend to move up and down in elevation in the same drainage or two, though prior to extensive development in the valley, would have frequented the valley bottoms more than they do today. To get a recent historical perspective on elk movements I spoke with Bill Heicher, current Town of Eagle Open Space Manager and retired Colorado Division of Wildlife Officer. In the early 1970’s, Bill recalls counting herds of up to 300 in winter in the Eagle-Vail area prior to development.
Studies by the division using radio telemetry in the early 1990s indicated increasing numbers of elk residing near Wolcott and the western portion of our valley, moving away from Beaver Creek and Arrowhead. There is little doubt that elk movement throughout the valley has been altered by human habitation.
Fortunately, elk are strong, hardy animals and can adapt up to a point. This is evidenced by the larger herds that gather in Cordillera, especially during hunting season, and in the Brush Creek Valley during the winter months. In the summer, elk are typically found at higher elevations, often grazing near and above tree line or retreating to the dark timber to seek shelter and avoid the heat.
Cow elk remain in small groups, while male bulls are typically solitary creatures. In late August and throughout September, the dominant bulls gather harems of cows indicating the start of the rut, when they are ready to mate. The rut is the time of year when bull elk can be heard bugling to attract cows and identify themselves to competing bulls. In October and November, bulls become solitary and cows return to their smaller groups, both moving frequently in search of more nutritious grasses and avoiding hunters by retreating into dark timber. In December and throughout the winter, elk begin to gather in larger herds in valley bottoms.
During winter elk minimize their movements and conserve energy. This is especially important for pregnant cows whose gestation period is 8 _ months. Typical food sources- grass and sages- are scarce and elk are subsisting on a close to starvation diet of woody plants, leaves, and less nutritious grass . Since most of the year they are not easily visible, this can be a wonderful time to observe Elk behavior, paying special attention not to disturb or stress the animals. A reliable and accessible place for viewing ia along Brush Creek on Town of Eagle Open Space. Always view elk at a good distance, binoculars are handy, and dogs should be kept on leashes. During the day, elk will typically be grazing and if their head comes up and they look in your direction, they are indicating you are too close. Once the elk have moved from on, it is interesting to find the areas where they have bedded down, indicated by matted grass or impressions of their bodies in the snow.
In order to protect and minimize disturbance of elk during critical times of year, restrictions have been put in place in important wintering and calving grounds. For example, the U.S. Forest Service Line Shack and Whiskey Creek trails on Meadow Mountain are closed Dec. 15-April 15, and Town of Eagle Open Space lands south and southwest of Eagle Ranch are closed Dec. 15-April 15. Though a minor inconvenience for recreational users, these seasonal closures are important for the conservation of elk populations and habitat in our valley.
As the snow melts in the spring, the cows that have carried to term are giving birth to their young and are in a vulnerable position. As soon as possible they seek better habitat, areas with new growths of grasses and adequate shelter for their young. This is a time of year best to avoid elk and their favorite locations altogether. Spring weather can be fickle and calves are gaining strength in order to continue their movement to higher elevations. The onset of summer eases life and elk return to higher forests and meadows in search of the new grasses and sedges.
As you are travelling throughout the valley, keep an eye open for these wonderful animals that play such an important role in our ecosystem and Western heritage.
Markian Feduschak is the executive director of Walking Mountains Science Center. He lives in Eagle with his wife and two daughters and always stops to observe the elk in the winter as he is pulling into his neighborhood after a great day at work. To learn more, visit http://www.walkingmountains.org
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