Wild Colorado: Summit County elk move to bulk up for winter
Ryan Summerlin September 22, 2012
Most elk that reside in Summit County are year-round residents, migrating only in the pursuit of food at lower-elevated winter ranges. Still the moving of these magnificent animals is a sight to see especially in winters that are promising to include heavy snow falls.
In winter, and unless weather is severe, elk herds stick around the High Country, said Sean Shepherd, a Colorado Division of Wildlife district wildlife manager.
“We have quite a number of elk that hang around here year-round,” Shepherd said.
Summit County’s resident populations are in the Ophir Mountain area and between Tiger Road near Breckenridge and Keystone, according to Shepherd.
These herds number about 100 head, compared with the more migratory herds that Shepherd said are tough to number “because they do move around a bit.”
He estimated the Middle Park herd that moves between Breckenridge and Park County is in the thousands.
With a statewide population estimated at 265,000 animals, Colorado still hosts the largest elk herd in North America, according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife 2012 hunting forecast.
The factor for their migration is mostly for the pursuit of nutrition, which is significantly less available in fall and winter months. During the winter, and sometimes fall with early snowfall, elk favor wooded areas and sheltered valleys for protection from the wind and the availability of tree bark to eat, according to a study by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“Protein is cut in half, energy content is cut into a quarter, and the availability and palatability of nutrition for elk goes down significantly,” said Scott Wait, terrestrial manager of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Wait said when snow begins to accumulate, elk move from alpine meadows in the High Country to lower areas, where they survive on mountain shrub, pinon, juniper, ponderosa pine and sage brush.
In the next month or so, depending on snow and the availability of food, elk will head to winter range – often the lower elevations of Kremmling or Park County.
If elk, also called wapiti, choose to move, it’s likely because of snow depth that exceeds 1-2 feet rather than cooler temperatures, Shepherd said.
The ungulates lose a fair amount of weight during the fall and winter season, so their movement is dictated by snow fall and where food sources remain unburied.
During the year, particularly hunting season, elk tend to be non-social and elusive animals that keep away from human populations.
Spotting them can be difficult, but during late September and into the winter season, elk have the tendency to do most of their feeding in the mornings and evenings, seeking sheltered areas in between feedings to digest.
A better place to view unthreatened elk would be Rocky Mountain National Park, particularly during mid-September’s recent rut, or breeding season. It’s then that bull elk bugle their mating call and are surrounded by cows.
However, for those who want to stay close to home and work a bit harder at spotting the elk, Shepherd said the Tenderfoot Hills, between Dillon and Keystone, is an ideal place.
Winters, especially harsh ones, are difficult for elk, but year after year, most of them survive.
With heavy snowfall, elk are unable to paw their way down to food sources like the grasses found amongst aspen and sage.
Compared to deer, their mortality rates are much lower. One advantage they have is their fat reserves – elk weigh around 600 pounds compared to a mere 200 pounds for deer, Wait said.
They have structural advantages, too.
“Elk are much more capable of moving through snow because of their long legs,” Wait said.