A herd of elk eats hay laid out for cattle on a ranch near Haymaker Golf Course east of Steamboat Springs earlier this winter.

Photo by John F. Russell

A herd of elk eats hay laid out for cattle on a ranch near Haymaker Golf Course east of Steamboat Springs earlier this winter.

A delicate decision

Officials monitor wildlife, consider feeding operation

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Mike Middleton, a district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, discusses the troubles elk herds have caused for ranchers near the Elk River on Thursday afternoon.

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Mike Middleton, a district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, tries to spot elk mixed in a with a group of horses on a ranch near the Elk River on Thursday afternoon.

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— Mike Middleton can point at just about any North Routt County property and tell you stories about the troubles elk have caused for landowners during the years - especially during winters like this one.

"It's pretty important this time of year, under these conditions, to keep an eye on what's going on," Middleton, a district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said on a drive up Routt County Road 129 on Thursday.

Middleton has been with the DOW since 1981. He said this winter is shaping up to be one of the top five - if not top three - in terms of toughness on area wildlife. That's why he and other DOW officials are closely monitoring deer, elk, pronghorn and bighorn sheep in Northwest Colorado to determine if an emergency feeding operation might become necessary.

One such operation already is under way in the Gunnison Basin, where the snowpack was at 153 percent of average as of Friday, and overnight temperatures of 30 degrees below zero have been the norm.

Middleton mostly is concerned with elk, as other animals such as deer are usually smart enough to vacate North Routt before winter begins in earnest.

"They move west or die," Middleton said.

Middleton is responsible for a district north of Steamboat Springs that includes the Elk River. As of Friday, snowpack measured on the Elk River was at 134 percent of average. Deep snow makes travel - especially uphill - difficult for elk.

"Each step they take down the mountain is a step they're not going back up," Middleton said.

As a result, elk concentrate on the valley floors, where conflicts with landowners become likely. Elk will gladly eat food intended for cattle. Studies have shown elk are capable of eating nearly nine pounds of hay a day.

"A haystack will stop an elk from moving faster than just about anything," Middleton said.

Despite the deeper-than-average snow, Middleton said the elk around Steamboat are in pretty good shape. Snow is just one factor, Middleton said, and probably not the worst one.

"Deep snow coupled with long, hard cold snaps," Middleton said. "That can really get the animals in bad conditions."

Mother Nature

Middleton employs a variety of techniques to gauge the health of elk. If he comes across a dead one, he cuts open a femur bone to look at the consistency of the elk's bone marrow.

A healthy elk's bone marrow will be white, fatty and waxy, while an unhealthy one will have bone marrow that is brown and gelatinous. Less gruesome observations can be made of live elk.

"When they start losing weight, that curvature of their rump gets a little flat," Middleton said. "Another thing that gives you a clue of how hungry they are, how desperate they are, is their tolerance for humans."

While DOW officials seriously are considering an emergency feeding operation in Northwest Colorado, they have many reasons why they would prefer not to start one.

"Winter does provide some benefit to the herd," DOW spokesman Randy Hampton said. "The sick animals, the old animals suffer in these winters and they die. It's just going to happen closer to people this year. People are going to see Mother Nature."

Middleton said it's hard to make much of an impact because of how widespread elk are in the region. Hampton estimated a feeding operation might make only a 2 percent to 5 percent difference in the number of elk that die. Such a small gain isn't always worth the risks of a feeding operation, including the inadvertent spread of disease that could result from concentrating the animals heavily around food.

"You may do more damage, percentage-wise, by intervening," Hampton said.

Furthermore, Middleton said people might respond inappropriately if they hear the DOW is going to begin feeding.

"We don't want to give anyone the impression that we're going to head into this giant feeding operation, because some people will take it upon themselves," Middleton said. "It's a delicate situation."

It's against the law in Colorado for people to feed big-game animals on their own.

"Do we want them to suffer?" Hampton said. "No. But at the same time we don't want to domesticate them. : We don't want to start messing around with that, because it has other implications."

As of now, the most officials have done is throw out a bit of food to bait elk away from problem areas. Middleton said hay has been thrown out near Catamount to try and keep elk away from U.S. Highway 40. While they hope this is as far as they'll have to go, both Middleton and Hampton acknowledged that the hardest part of the winter might be yet to come.

"The hardest part of the winter, believe it or not, for big game animals, is spring," Middleton said. "You'll see the effects of a bad winter in March every year."

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