Increased development in the Yampa Valley is putting a strain on the elk herds that inhabit the area.

File Photo

Increased development in the Yampa Valley is putting a strain on the elk herds that inhabit the area.

Elk winter areas threatened by Steamboat growth and recreation


— The Yampa Valley is home to two of the largest elk herds in the world, but competing for open space with the area's world-class winter recreational opportunities is putting a strain on the animals, wildlife officials say.

"Our goal is to provide some winter habitat where they have some security and are not stressed out," said Robert Skorkowsky, a regional wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

"What's happening in Steamboat is that all of the development that's occurring is pretty much occurring on elk winter range," Skorkowsky said. "It means the public winter range is becoming more important."

But Skorkowsky noted that the public is ignoring voluntary closures of public lands intended to keep people and dogs away from elk.

"The elk pretty much get out of the high country because of the snow depth up there," he said. "They move to the areas that are in the lower elevation margins of the forest and the areas south of the ski area."

Skorkowsky said those low-lying areas also are popular recreation areas. Red Dirt, Mad Creek, Hot Springs, Lower Bear and Spring Creek trails are all popular areas that Forest Service officials have asked the public to stay clear of between Nov. 15 and April 15.

"It's a voluntary closure, and you are not going to get a ticket if you go in there unless you are on a snowmobile," he said.

Diann Ritschard, public affairs specialist with the Forest Service, urged people to visit areas not visited by elk in the winter, such as Rabbit Ears and Buffalo passes, and the south fork of the Elk River.

"If you do venture outside those areas, pay attention to the signs that are posted at the trailhead," she said. "They are there for the public benefit and the protection of the wildlife winter range. More and more people are enjoying our forests, which is having a big impact on our elk herds."

Skorkowsky said elk, which number about 90,000 in the Yampa Valley, survive the winter by using their stored body fat reserves. As winter progresses, they slowly starve.

"They are kind of operating on the margins in the winter," he said. "They are just pretty much living off of fat or muscle reserves. In the wintertime, they eat mostly the new growth on the shrubs, or sometimes they are forced to eat aspen bark."

As the snow gets deeper, Skorkowsky said the chances of survival for elk slowly deteriorate. The situation is exacerbated by the presence of people and dogs.

"Elk are trying to survive with pretty harsh conditions out there, and with folks going in there, that causes them to start running, particularly when people have dogs off leashes. It can really be a pretty big deal for the animals."

Skorkowsky said aerial photographs taken during a three-year period to study elk migration patterns revealed a drastic decrease in the number of herds using traditional winter range areas near Steamboat since 2003.

Elk herds near the Steamboat Ski Area dropped from four herds in 2003 to none in 2005, while herds at Hot Springs dropped from 15 in 2003 to 1 in 2005.

"I can't say it's absolutely caused by recreational use, but I have a good sense that it is contributing to it," he said.

"When they get shoved off, where do they go? They get pushed down onto other ranch lands where folks may have haystacks and then we start getting game damage problems."

Skorkowsky said this pattern of pushing the elk farther south is dangerous to both the animals and the public.

"What's happening is they are also crossing the highway, which is very dangerous," he said.

"The best thing to do is provide enough security that they can stay up in this country and get through the winter without getting chased down and end up in someone's hay pile or out having to cross a bunch of roads."


jlkar 9 years, 5 months ago

If people aren't responding to the voluntary closures, why don't we make them involuntary? People can figure out other places to go recreating other than those 5 places. It is unfortunate that the requests aren't being observed but I am not surprised.


blahblahblah 9 years, 5 months ago

Just another occasion of people loving Steamboat to death.


dave reynolds 9 years, 5 months ago

face it people here feel entitled..the hell with elk we want to hike in these places and let our dogs ryn wild sad but true


dogd 9 years, 5 months ago

Some people may just not know. At the very least some signs should be posted .


dave reynolds 9 years, 5 months ago

opps run sorry.its not rocket science if there is wildlife grazing or what ever respect that part of life as you would want someone to respect what you chose to be part of your life..after all ELK.Bears,Mountian LIons, and such where here first as well as Native Americans


fish 9 years, 5 months ago

Okay I agree with you to some extent dogd, but if you read (okay again I am just assuming that most people can read) National Forest Service information at either the entrance to most trail heads or published on the net or one of their many pamplets that they put out, you would be able to figure out from the printing that dogs should be kept on a leash or that certain areas are closed for the winter. There is no way for the Forest Service to put up signs every 10 feet for people to to read (ignore) and continue to their destination,

The problem is not of areas not being posted it is postings are being ignored because most people feel if there is not a person standing there to enforce the posting then they won't get caught so no harm no foul. Until we can learn to start policing ourselves nothing will change. Also many people that are not traveling on a snowmobile think that the closure does not apply to them so they just ski or snowshoe past.


Oscar 9 years, 5 months ago

My compliments to Mike McCollum and the Steamboat Today paper for running such a good article at such a timely period. Something like this article should run every year about this time to help bring attention to the elk habitat crisis. I am certainly guilty of walking past sign boards with FS notices on them because I have read them (and forgotten them) many long time ago. I appreciate being reminded, and I would like to see a lot more nature oriented articles in the SBS Pilot and Today.


corduroy 9 years, 4 months ago

dogd: signs are posted at each area where there is a voluntary closure. I came across it heading on the Mad Creek trail last year and decided to recreate elsewhere because of the sign actually. There were still a large number of people going in with dogs anyways. It's only voluntary, so I just felt I should do my part to help the elk, apparently the others there that day, didn't

Instead, Rabbit Ears is always fun in winter, and spring creek


dave reynolds 9 years, 4 months ago

pt22..your right on with your post it is going to get worse..what with Steambaot 700 and Maribou then the other perposed developement behind Silv e Spur they don't have a chance..its a shame


Stephen Blinkenberg 9 years, 4 months ago

I thought Maribou was God's answer to the wildlife problems of Yampa Valley.


housepoor 9 years, 4 months ago

Unfortantly life as they knew it is over for the elk, bear and most recently the Yampa Valley


bikegirl 9 years, 4 months ago

I agree paddlefisher-right on pt22-I live out here and have had a bears around all summer and fall this year,it has been hungry and displaced.Marabou is a nightmare.Before silver spur we enjoyed watching the elk and antelope herds .What a shame .I can only hope Stmbt.700 doesn't go through.


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