As summer ends, eyes turn to elk
Summit County correspondent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado – As the days grow shorter and summer fades into fall, elk capture the imaginations of many in Colorado’s High Country. Whether you’re a hunter, hiker or avid wildlife viewer, there are few animal encounters that can match the thrill of a herd of elk thundering across an open hillside.
Local sportsmen have been venturing out to their favorite hunting spots lately, hoping to catch a glimpse of the often-elusive creature in preparation for Colorado’s elk-hunting seasons, which begin this weekend and continue through December. Wildlife viewers can look forward to the rut, or breeding season, this time of year, when bulls display their antlers, stretch their necks and bugle in the fierce competition for females.
Elk (Cervus canadensis) is Colorado’s largest member of the deer family, with males weighing up to 1,100 pounds and standing 5-feet tall at the shoulder. The animals we refer to as North American elk also go by the name “wapiti” – a Shawnee word meaning “white rump” – to avoid confusion with moose, which are called elk by Europeans.
Elk spend their summers at high elevations, and then begin to descend into meadows in late summer for mating. The rut features occasional clashes between bulls, but since fighting can cause injury and expend valuable calories, agitated bulls more commonly advertise their desire by emitting musky odors, grunting, squealing and showing off their antlers.
After mating, females have a gestation time of about 250 days, with each cow giving birth to a single calf in late May or June. Calves typically weigh about 30 pounds. Bulls reach reproductive age at about 4 years, and females at 3. Bulls reach their reproductive prime at 8 or 9 years of age.
Elk, like other ungulates, are grazers, subsisting almost entirely on grasses during the summer. In the winter, about half their diet comes from bark and twigs of trees and shrubs. Because of their large size and their tendency to congregate in herds, elk have few predators besides humans. Mountain lions will only occasionally make a meal of elk, and elk predators like the gray wolf and grizzly bear were exterminated from Colorado by humans long ago.
As with so many species of Colorado wildlife, white settlement in the mid-1800s caused the elk’s near extinction in the Centennial State. Market hunters harvested thousands of elk and sold their meat to mining camps in Leadville, Summit County and Clear Creek County. High demand for elk teeth and antlers caused the demise of many thousands more.
By 1913, only about 50 individuals remained in the Upper Colorado River Basin, and statewide populations hovered somewhere between an estimated 500 and 1,000. In the early decades of the 1900s, reintroduction efforts brought 350 Yellowstone elk into Colorado, and the Williams Fork drainage in Grand County was designated an elk refuge. Populations steadily grew throughout the 20th century back to healthy levels. In the 1990s, about 9,000 elk roamed through Summit and Grand counties. The Colorado Division of Wildlife estimates the current population to be about 4,700.
Today, the Division of Wildlife manages elk at the herd level, monitoring population sizes and revising management plans about every 10 years. Management plans take into account sex ratios, herd size, frequency of wildlife-human conflicts, economic factors, habitat quality and ecosystem issues, such as the mountain pine beetle epidemic. The plans include goals for herd sizes and sex ratios, which then guide the establishment of hunting seasons and the issuance of hunting licenses. The Division of Wildlife is now finalizing management plans for the Middle Park herds, which make their homes in Grand and Summit counties. The Middle Park plans are due to be available for public review in September.
“Herd size is a function of biology, but it is also a function of what the public desires for a population,” said Ron Velarde, DOW regional manager for northwest Colorado.
Sportsmen, outfitters, business owners and landowners all have a vested interest in elk populations in the area. Hunters may want larger herds for increased hunting opportunity. Outfitters and owners of tourism-dependent businesses may want increased hunting opportunities that bring more hunters into the area. Landowners, on the other hand, may desire smaller herd sizes to minimize damage to fences, crops and other property.
“We annually evaluate how the success of the hunting season was the previous year, how the winter weather was, how well elk survived the winter,” DOW terrestrial biologist Kirk Oldham said. “We have a complex computer model that takes a number of factors into account to estimate the population. If it’s above or below the objective, we change the hunting licenses accordingly.”
The Division’s current goal is to bring the Middle Park population down to about 3,000.
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