Many elk migrate to lower-elevation areas to avoid harsher winter conditions.

Courtesy of David Dietrich

Many elk migrate to lower-elevation areas to avoid harsher winter conditions.

Helping elk during La Niña winters

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— If you have been following recent news and weather reports, you likely have heard experts predicting another La Niña winter.

This is great news for those who enjoy Steamboat Springs’ famous ski slopes, but for local wildlife managers like me, the return of La Niña necessitates a reminder to residents about how winter plays a natural role in an elk’s life cycle and that there are things everyone can do to help them survive.

Winter sports enthusiasts here usually thrive in deep snow, but only a few local wildlife species do well once winter arrives. Although some animals have adapted to tolerate the harsh conditions, many species such as elk simply endure the cold and wait patiently for spring’s thaw.

Evolution has provided elk with one important characteristic that helps them survive winter: the natural impulse to migrate long distances to areas where winters are less severe.

Nevertheless, a large number of elk will take the shorter route to the lower-elevation mountain shrub communities around Steamboat Springs and must endure not only the harsh winters here but also a loss of habitat from increased development, increased conflicts with agricultural operations and disturbances from humans who take part in recreational activities in these areas.

As many local residents saw for themselves, last year’s hard winter resulted in a significant increase in elk mortality, including the deaths of numerous calves. It was not a pleasant thing for many people to see, and unfortunately, many concerned residents began feeding elk themselves in an effort to help the struggling animals.

Despite these citizens’ good intentions, feeding elk can have harmful, unintended consequences. Besides being illegal, feeding can spread disease and disrupt natural herd distribution. As responsible wildlife managers, we cannot sacrifice the health of the entire herd to save a few animals.

The good news is that there are several things people can do to help elk survive winter:

■ Livestock owners should protect their haystacks from hungry elk. Keep in mind that elk will burn more calories trudging to unprotected hay than the small meal can replenish. In addition, elk frequently have to cross roads to access this hay, increasing the risk of collisions with vehicles.

■ Winter enthusiasts can help by engaging in recreational activities only in places that are outside of known elk winter range. The U.S. Forest Service, working with Division of Parks and Wildlife managers, has identified important elk winter ranges and asks that people respect the voluntary closures that have been posted in these popular locations.

■ Lastly, plan to attend this year’s Elk Winter Symposium to learn more about what you can do to help support our wintering elk population. The symposium is from 6 to 9 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Steamboat Springs Community Center.

For more information about closures, game damage and protecting haystacks, call the Division of Parks and Wildlife office in Steamboat Springs at 970-870-2197.

Libbie Miller is a Colorado Division Parks and Wildlife district wildlife manager based in Yampa.

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