Steamboat Springs 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."