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To Bee or Not to Bee

Down here in the wilds of New Castle, giants haunt the night.Just after the “Critter Gitter” motion-sensor alarm went off at 6 a.m., I stepped outside. I could hear the elk talking. It sounded like women wailing.”Stay away from Colby Farms,” they moaned. “This place is booby-trapped with sirens, flashing lights, and electric fence running every which way. Why would we ever want to chew on Ed’s apple trees, anyway?”The elk just settled in for the winter, like they always do. Drive down our road at night, and you see them moving ghostlike in a great herd. They quickly discover which orchards they can bed down in, and which ranchers don’t protect their hay. Like us, elk are opportunistic, but also creatures of habit. I try to train them early.The other night on the frontage road between Silt and New Castle – the one that runs between Interstate 70 and the Colorado River – I came across about 50 of those behemoths. They acted confused and leaderless. They looked scared. Most pranced nervously on the road in front of me, but a few hopped the fence onto the I-70 right of way. I turned around so I faced the oncoming I-70 traffic and flashed my lights on and off as cars and semis screamed past. Some actually slowed down.After a few minutes the elk retreated toward the river, and a little clapping and horn honking stampeded them to temporary safety.The elk really do have it rough. We humans long ago usurped their favored winter range – the valley floor – where there is plenty to eat and refuge from the deep snow of the mountains. Now, with rampant development and crowded highways, their plight is tragic to behold.This herd spends its days on the Grand Hogback, that dry 2,000-foot-high ridge that separates the Colorado River from Elk Creek. But at night the darlings wander through Peach Valley. To get to the river, they have to cross half a dozen fences, a county road, Highway 6 & 24, the railroad tracks, the interstate, and then the frontage road.They raise hell at our place. They trample fences, eat my young apple trees and get tangled in the grape trellises.Our first winter here, Spot and I guarded the trees by sleeping in the orchard in the VW bus. Linda even joined us a time or two, too, but she never did like winter camping. We only did that the one winter. Then we wound up alarm clocks and put them in the orchard every night. When they went off the elk scattered, and learned to avoid our spooky place. But on a tomb-dark night Linda got a big scare. With a plastic tub full of alarm clocks under her arm, she opened the gate to the fence around the baby fruit trees. From inside the fence an unseen animal sprang once, twice, three times before it finally cleared the rickety, pieced-together, seven-foot-high wire enclosure.Linda screamed, because she knew neighbors would call back and rush to her aid. When no one did, she looked uphill, and her blood ran cold. Huge eyes stared back at her from low-down next to the ground. What nocturnal jumping creature with big eyes would crouch low as it sized you up on a Styx-black night? After that, Linda found “putting out the clocks” not so important.The Critter Gitter keeps the elk moving. You have to replace the battery, but you can do that in the light of day.The elk problem will only get worse. I don’t know what the answer is. But clearly the elk will need to adjust to an increasingly suburban winter range, and we humans will need to devise ways to accommodate them. The elk deserve a place on the land. I’m all for this. Just so long as it’s not in my backyard. Ski patroller Ed Colby’s honeybees farm 20,000 acres in and around Peach Valley. His e-mail address is esc@sopris.net.


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