Wild Colorado: Summit County’s elk herds tend to stay put in winter
November 12, 2010
The day has clearly begun, but the sun hasn’t yet crept over the Continental Divide and begun to shine on Lake Dillon.
In the low light beginning to sharpen shapes against the soft insulation of snow, there’s slight movement. You look over and notice an elk herd’s shades of gray. White tails against dark bodies. Glistening noses and shining eyes. Numerous cows attending one antlered bull.
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.
They head to winter range – often the lower elevations of Kremmling or Park County – only when snow gets deep enough on south-facing slopes that they can’t paw their way down to the grasses found amongst aspen and sage.
“We have quite a number of elk that hang around here year-round,” Shepherd said. Summit County has ideal summer elk range, as well, even if some of it is inundated with people and their pets.
Elk tend to stay in the shadows, he added. They feed in dusky times early and late in the day, and retreat to the dark timber to chew their cud.
If elk choose to move, it’s likely because of snow depth that exceeds 1-2 feet rather than cooler temperatures, Shepherd said.
But he expects more elk to stay put with the effects of the pine beetle on clearing the forest canopy.
“Beetle kill has opened areas that were completely closed before, and now there’s knee-high grass,” Shepherd said, adding that now, the beasts can stay in dark timber to eat. An open canopy allows more water and sunlight for under-story growth.
Summit County’s resident populations are in the Ophir Mountain area and between Tiger Road near Breckenridge and Keystone, Shepherd said. 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.
Viewing elk in Summit County is somewhat tricky, as they can be skittish due to hunting. A better place to view unthreatened elk would be Rocky Mountain National Park, particularly during mid-September recent rut, or breeding season. It’s then that bull elk bugle their mating call and are surrounded by cows.
“Their game is to get groceries and reproduce,” Shepherd said, so that’s the name of the game in the fall, and they can be seen doing so in places where they feel unthreatened.
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.
SDN reporter Janice Kurbjun can be contacted at (970) 668-4630 or firstname.lastname@example.org.