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Vail Daily column: Obey the signs — stay off the trail

There may be no more exciting and gut-wrenching time of life than the birth of a child. Consider the preparation, the planning, and the sleepless nights that any expectant parent might go through as those final days tick down. I’d imagine it’s no different in the animal world, and I sincerely empathize with the elk cows that are now heavy with calves. I imagine them counting down the time in some secret elk-way of telling time; but whether you are counting sunrises or moonrises, the numbers are the same, 240 to 262 days until the young calf arrives.

Be careful toward wildlife

After the fall rut, cows (female elk) spend the winter as a herd, both for protection and to take advantage of limited foraging areas. But as the winter draws to an end, the pregnant cows become irritable and hypersensitive, vigilant to anything that could be a threat to the safety of their unborn calf. They seek out solitude, looking for places where their young can be born in peace and safety. The cow must be especially choosy in her selection of birthing locations. There must be water nearby, to keep herself healthy and hydrated to nurse her young. The forage must be lush and plentiful, to provide a soft bed and thick cover to protect the young calf, and to strengthen herself after the long winter of sparse food, cold winds and thick snows. And the snows must have melted, leaving the high mountain meadows off limits in the early months of March and April. And finally, the expectant mother needs a place of solitude, where she can birth, nurse and nurture her baby without fear.

With such a narrow range of conditions necessary for birthing, you can see why an expectant mother might be anxious. And when the expectant mother is a wild animal weighing upwards of 500 pounds, you can also see how she might be dangerous. An elk might seem like a calm, peaceful herbivore until it is charging at you … then they suddenly become scary and life-threatening. Which brings me to my point. During this time of year, the U.S. Forest Service closes a number of trails to help support the elk mamas in their quest for the perfect birthing grounds. This is really important. Nobody wants to be that callous hiker who scares a mother off for too long, or the mountain biker going downhill who plows into that mama elk. Did I mention they weigh more than 500 pounds?

Don’t take the risk

Trails may be closed for many valid reasons, from erosion control to habitat restoration; but right now, many, such as the West Avon Preserve managed by the town of Avon, and some local Forest Service Trails, are closed for our own protection, as well as that of our heritage, the elk herds. There are plenty of areas that are still open, and if you find yourself enjoying any open areas that are frequented by elk herds with your four-legged, furry friends (yes, our beloved dogs), then please keep them leashed, for their own sake as well as that of the elk’s. (Owners can also be fined if their dogs are harassing wildlife, and in extreme cases, dogs can be put down by appropriate wildlife control officers.)

Spring is such an exciting time of year for so many reasons, not simply for those of us itching to put foot to dirt, but for the four-legged creatures among us too. So remember that we’re all in this together and obey the signs that are intended to keep us all happy and safe. And in a few more weeks, when those little calves have grown and joined the herds safely in tow with their mamas, we can get back out on our favorite trails. Watch for signs at your favorite trailheads and check with the U.S. Forest Service office in Minturn if you have questions about which trails are closed.

Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate programs at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. She never tires of seeing the elk herds in the winter and still remembers the thrill of the first time she saw them lining the hillsides above Minturn.


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