Photo by John F. Russell
A small herd of elk has found shelter on a small ranch near the Yampa River. The animals already have begun showing up in suburban neighborhoods across Steamboat Springs in search of food.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Steamboat Springs The abundant early season snow that made Opening Day at Steamboat Ski Area so noteworthy represents grim news for the Yampa Valley’s elk herd. The animals already have begun showing up in suburban neighborhoods within Steamboat Springs city limits this month.
“It bodes poorly for the elk later on in the winter,” Colorado Division of Wildlife District Wildlife Manager Mike Middleton said Wednesday.
At 4:45 a.m. Wednesday, a pair of mature bulls was wandering the neighborhood near Meadow Lane and dining at the outdoor buffet just up the hill from Whistler Park. The larger of the two elk, boasting a six-point rack of antlers, was daintily picking crab apples off some low branches.
National Weather Service observer Art Judson said Wednesday morning that the settled snow depth at his station between downtown and the ski mountain is 11 inches. The accumulated depth is greater at higher elevations — 38 inches at Thunderhead, according to the ski area, and between 51 and 69 inches at 10,000 feet on Buffalo Pass, according to Judson.
Middleton said much of the early snow in the valley has been wet and dense, forming a solid base that makes it hard for elk to reach the protein-rich grass that represents their best winter food source.
“There’s hardpack under the sugar,” Middleton said. “They paw and dig to get at the leftover grass but the sugar snow falls back into the holes, discouraging them. That causes the elk to move on to the lower quality browse — oak brush, serviceberry and bitter bush.”
The scarcity of protein-rich food this early hastens the day when the large ungulates begin drawing on fat reserves to get through the winter, Middleton said. The consequences may not show up until March and April when some of the animals tip over and die of starvation.
Despite that grim prognosis, Middleton urges residents to resist the temptation to feed the animals and to instead let nature take its course.
“We’re already getting some calls of game damage, and we’re kind of scrambling to get panels in place and protect hay stacks,” he said.
Elk are remarkably hardy animals, Middleton said, and the Division of Wildlife wants to do all it can to prevent them from being more habituated to the presence of human civilization than they already are. The most undesirable situation arises when a herd of cows, calves and immature bulls settles in for the winter along a cattle rancher’s feed route, he said.
“The cows can live to be 20 years old, and those old cows know just where to be” to take advantage of hay crops, he said.
Ideally, the elk will be left alone to fend for themselves as they always have.
Division of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said the last time his agency launched a supplemental elk-feeding program in Routt County was during the heavy snow winter of 2007-08. However, the goal that winter wasn’t to save the herd from severe losses. The animals were finding food in all the wrong places.
“The elk were congregating along railroad tracks and roads — areas that had been plowed,” Hampton said.
DOW feeding programs cause the animals to congregate in unnatural densities, promoting the spread of disease and attracting mountain lions, he added.
“They got along just fine without us for 10,000 years,” Middleton said. “We always say that once they’re two years old, the only thing that will kill them is a bullet or a bumper.”