Steamboat Springs A herd of elk that appears to have set up camp for the winter in neighborhoods adjoining Rita Valentine Park, struggling to survive unusually low temperatures like George Washington’s troops in Valley Forge, is causing concern among some residents by foraging for food on private trees and shrubs.
Some residents, and at least one Steamboat Springs City Council member, think the city’s new off-leash dog regulations in the park are worsening the situation.
But other residents, along with Colorado Division of Wildlife and city officials, say that connection is tenuous and caution that the elk’s residential location makes the herd difficult to move.
Wildlife interface issues are a familiar part of life in Northwest Colorado. The Craig City Council addressed in late October, and ultimately took no action on, issues arising from the city’s growing deer population. Moose sightings have been common this winter in Steamboat Springs and Routt County, and elk have been seen in several areas across the city.
Danielle Domson, DOW district wildlife manager, said she began hearing about the Rita Valentine elk herd around Christmas. The herd numbers 30 to 50 and could have been driven to the spot by heavy snowfall and low temperatures at higher elevations, she said.
“This is the first time I can remember seeing that many concentrated in there,” Domson said. “This herd, for some reason, has decided to come closer to town than normal.”
Chris Wilson, director of the city’s Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services Department, noted that he first saw evidence of elk in Rita Valentine Park — as opposed to neighborhood areas around the park — only last week. Wilson also noted, as did Domson, that there have been no reports of dogs chasing wildlife in the Rita Valentine area this winter.
But by moving into that area, some say, the elk herd has gone to the dogs.
The City Council voted, 4-2, on Nov. 2 to give final approval to off-leash dogs in Rita Valentine Park, provided the dogs are under voice and sight control. Council members Kenny Reisman and Walter Magill voted against the ruling. Councilwoman Meg Bentley was out of the state that night, but she said she also would have voted “no” because she’s “never felt off-leash use was appropriate” in Rita Valentine Park.
Bentley reinforced that position Thursday.
“The fact that City Council authorized an off-leash dog park, completely unfenced, can only have exacerbated the situation,” she said about elk conflicts. “We should close the dog park until further notice and get this fenced dog park going.”
Bentley said a petition drive last year gathered 400 signatures against off-leash dogs in Rita Valentine Park. She said creation of off-leash parks in other areas — such as Whistler, Stehley and Fetcher parks — has not been adequately examined.
Domson also has publicly opposed off-leash dogs in Rita Valentine, citing wildlife concerns. She said fear of dogs could cause elk to lose weight because of stress or change their habits.
But she also said there’s no way to clarify a connection between nearby dogs and elk, or to say whether dogs have driven the elk out of the park.
“They’re wild animals, and they’re going to do what they want to do and be where they want to be,” Domson said. “They’re eating people’s shrubs and trees right now, so as long as they have a food source they’re not going to move and expend more energy than they need to.”
Anglers Pond resident Don Valentine, husband to the late Rita Valentine, disagreed with any connection between off-leash dogs and elk behavior around the park.
“That is, as far as I can see, is completely absurd,” Valentine said. “Why would the elk go out in the middle of that open space? There’s nothing for them to eat, and there’s no cover. … The elk, in most cases, could care less about the dogs.”
But some of his neighbors disagree.
Two residents, in particular, have been outspoken about possible impacts of the dog park on elk behaviors. But those residents could not be reached last week, or did not wish to comment, to confirm statements made in private e-mails circulating among neighborhood residents.
Longtime Anglers Drive resident Art Judson has seen damage to trees and shrubs but took a moderate stance on the elk issue.
“They’ve killed a few of my trees here, small ones, and they have defoliated others, conifers, about the lower two-thirds of the crown,” Judson said. “They’re beautiful, and we like them very much … the problem is they come 40 strong right straight down the driveway, and they get into my trees that I’ve been growing ever since I built this place.”
Judson said although his largest, oldest trees from the 1970s are OK, some smaller trees he planted in the ’80s are taking the brunt of the damage. But he said the elk have nowhere else to go and limited food options.
“The problem with the poor elk is that they’re stuck,” Judson said. “They can’t go up (in elevation) because there’s too much snow, and they can’t go down, I don’t think, because the city is in the way.”
Domson said in rural areas, DOW staff can move elk with propane cannons or other noisy methods. But those options aren’t viable in a residential neighborhood. The DOW can’t move elk manually out of the Rita Valentine area, she said, because of roads.
Domson said the health of old or sick elk could deteriorate in the Rita Valentine herd, which could spur a public outcry about which the DOW could do little. She said the department would feed the elk alfalfa hay if their condition worsens.
“With this many people watching them, it could be more of an issue, I think,” she said. “People aren’t used to seeing animals die, even if it’s a natural thing that occurs. They don’t want to see it out their back window.”
Wilson said an update for City Council is planned for Feb. 1, and more discussion of the off-leash issue is needed.
In the interim, Domson advised residents to consider the situation when using Rita Valentine Park. She said dog owners can be cited if their pets harass wildlife.
“If people do have their dogs off leash and see wildlife, even though it’s an off-leash area, please do put your dogs on a leash,” Domson said.