Steamboat Springs A large heard of elk trying to feed in a snow-covered hayfield south of the Haymaker Golf Course serves as a reminder of the harsh conditions big-game animals have been battling this winter.
"It's been a severe winter, and severe winter means there is still a lot of snow," said Mike Middleton of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "Those elk are still hungry."
A thick layer of snow coats the ground in much of Steamboat, and elk are scavenging to find whatever food they can. Right now, they are in the worst shape, Middleton said.
"They're still waiting for green grass to show up, and they're on reserves," he said.
There are about 20 dead elk in the field where the herd of about 100 animals has been trying to graze by Haymaker. They are dying almost daily from hunger, but it is far from mass starvation, Middleton said.
"I've been here for 26 years, and the elk have always been an issue between Catamount and Steamboat Springs," Middleton said.
It is unusual for elk to be in such a big herd, Middleton said. Usually they are in herds of 20 to 30.
The DOW does not want to encourage the elk to come down to the valley, which is why they are not feeding them. Only DOW officials can legally feed elk.
Some local ranchers have been feeding elk involuntarily.
Middleton said he has about a half dozen $1,000 claims from ranchers who want to be compensated for the feed the elk ate off their property. Some elk are looking for scraps from feedlots, and others are breaking down livestock fences to feast on stacks of hay. The DOW is responsible for damages done by big game, Middleton said.
Elk were able to traverse an 8-foot livestock fence this winter near Priest Creek, causing about $6,000 worth of damage. Middleton said a meeting would be held at 7 p.m. today with local ranchers at the Forest Service Building to discuss the damage caused by big game.
A loss of habitat attributed to developments above the valley floor is one reason elk are searching for food in the valley. Couple that with a hard winter, and it becomes more evident that the elk are struggling to survive.
"They're probably hungry because they are in the wrong place," Middleton said. "Where they ought to be is up where all those houses are."
Middleton said the DOW is in the business of managing elk populations, but there is little they can do to control where the elk travel. Although officials rely on Mother Nature to do its part, they also count on hunters to play a valuable role in controlling the number of elk that can be supported by the habitat.
Controlling herd size is becoming increasingly difficult as elk move onto private property owned by people who will not allow hunting on their land.
"We're not doing any favors by having too many elk out there," Middleton said.
The harsh winter is quickly coming to an end and elk should soon be able to find food.
"In a week, two weeks, these elk will be home free," Middleton said.
The weather has not been as much of a factor in west Routt County, DOW manager Jim Haskins.
"It's been more severe than we've had in the last few years, but about close to normal," Haskins said.