Community Agriculture Alliance: Winter conditions difficult on elk

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— Although Steamboat Ski Area is celebrating more than 400 inches of snowfall during the 2010-11 ski season, it is unlikely that the elk wintering across Steamboat Springs are as enthusiastic.

A combination of deep snow and crusting caused by the melting and refreezing of snowpack made winter a difficult one for local elk herds. Large groups of elk were seen closer to town in winter in numbers and areas where they typically have not been seen.

One group of nearly 40 cows, calves and immature bulls, or spikes, spent most of the winter near Rita Valentine Park. Meanwhile, two large mature bulls wintered in the Walton Creek neighborhood. Other groups showed up on the Yampa Valley floor to dine at haystacks and feed with livestock in areas where game damage had not occurred.

Hit hardest by the winter conditions in Steamboat were the elk calves born last spring, and the majority of the calls received by the Colorado Division of Wildlife were about dead or dying calves. According to elk mortality research conducted by Division of Wildlife biologists, winter malnutrition losses in elk calves typically are about 14 percent during a mild winter, though rates can vary greatly from year to year. In hard winters, calf losses of 30 to 70 percent are not uncommon. Adult elk are hardier, with only a 2 to 10 percent winter mortality rate.

Because this year’s heavy snowfall naturally increased the number of dead or dying elk calves in Steamboat, it also led to an increase in reports by an alarmed public who had a front row seat for one of nature’s harshest lessons. This led to a public outcry by resident who wanted the DOW to “help” by feeding the elk. Others simply decided to feed the elk themselves in an attempt to save them, but they ran the risk of causing more harm than good.

Although people had the best intentions, the DOW reminds everyone that deaths of young and sick elk under these conditions are expected and natural. Although it is difficult for people to watch wildlife suffer, feeding is strongly discouraged to preserve the overall health of the herd.

When people feed wildlife, it can lead to serious digestive problems, increase disease transmission and change natural herd distribution. Wildlife species also can become dangerous when they start associating people with food. For all of these reasons, feeding wildlife is illegal in Colorado and can result in fines.

It’s important to note that even in situations when the DOW had to feed elk to alleviate game damage, or provide food in emergency winter conditions, some calf mortality still occurred.

So, what else can the DOW and the public do to help increase elk winter survival?

Ultimately, the protection and enhancement of winter habitat is the key. Tactics such as controlled burning, mechanical treatments and fertilization of important winter forage species such as oak brush are a few strategies that can increase forage production in winter habitat.

Also crucial is the protection

of our winter range areas from development and disturbance during calving months. We also can try to keep elk on their native winter ranges by securing our haystacks to avoid unintentionally feeding wildlife. Often overlooked, sportsmen and women help elk herds flourish year-round by harvesting animals and keeping local wildlife populations below carrying capacity for the available habitat.

Danielle Domson is a district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife out of Steamboat Springs.

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