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Crestone Eagle, November 2004:
The magnificent Baca elk herd
was a foggy, early winter's morning, just before dawn, when
Janet Woodman looked out the window from her second floor
bedroom and saw some "large shapes" surrounding
her Baca Grants home. What were these large shapes? Well,
just the Baca Ranch resident elk herd paying a visit, of course.
"It was quite a sight; they were eating moldy hay bales,"
says Woodman. If you live out in the Grants, you occasionally
do get to see this marvelous elk herd.
How long has our herd been living here? Well the elk were
always here, at least they were around before man showed up.
Then in the 1800s, they were all killed off by hunting. In
the 1930s they were re-introduced, brought in from Yellowstone
Park in Wyoming, and first located in the Saguache area. They
slowly spread out and first showed up around Crestone in the
This herd, estimated to be around 6,000, has a range from
Poncha Pass south to Highway 160 in Blanca. However, the herd
is broken up into groups of a few hundred each, and during
the mating season they will break into even smaller groups.
In the Crestone area, over 3500 were counted last year between
T Road and the Great Sand Dunes. The herd is becoming so large
that talk is going around about allowing hunting to thin them
out a bit, especially since the nearby Great Sand Dunes became
a National Park, and the land on which the elk live has changed
There actually has been limited hunting of the herd (cows
only) for the last couple of years, through a guided hunting
program run by the Department of Wildlife, and an increase
in hunting of this herd is likely in the future. Among other
things, there is fear that if the herd grows too large, more
of them may start to cross over Highway 17 to seek food, and
damage potato fields over there. Also, too many elk can have
an adverse impact on the deer and big horn sheep in the area.
The DOW believes that the ideal number of elk for this herd
to remain healthy should be around 1500, which would mean
that it would take several years of hunting to approach this
On October 1, a new federal grant kicked in that is studying
this elk herd (the study also looks at the local bison population).
The planned three year study will look at the elks’
overall health, feeding habits and migration, and will be
carefully coordinated with other agencies in the state. What
we do know now is that the local herd is in very good health
and growing. For the most part they stay to the east of Highway
17. Although elk are known to live in the mountains, most
of this herd (but not all) stays clear of them, and lives
exclusively on the Valley's floor.
Living with Crestone’s elk herd
David Davis, who lives out in the Grants, notes: “An
elk herd of more than 150 head migrate through here, year
round, mostly at night, and have been observed calving in
the trees and grasslands.” His wife, Lorain, is a teacher
of Native American Studies in Boulder. She says that the Native
Americans believed that the elk was an indication of the health
of the environment, and they are a symbol of strength, nourishment
Sometimes our local herd can be seen on either side of T
road over by the Golf Course, or suddenly in your headlights
while gracefully leaping fences and streaming across the road.
Elk will cross our main road into town from time to time,
and they don’t associate cars with danger. So, when
driving around here, be careful; always drive slower at night,
as elk are mostly nocturnal creatures. If you ever have the
misfortune of hitting a several-hundred pound elk while driving,
it will not only cause major damage to your vehicle, but it
can kill or maim both the animal and driver! So keep an eye
out for them. If you see one animal cross the road, expect
more to follow. Headlights confuse them, so expect erratic
At your home, remember never to feed any wildlife, including
elk, and do keep this in mind when you plan your garden. Do
not plant vegetation that is irresistible to them. There are
very few plants that elk won’t eat if they are hungry
enough, but they will choose well-watered, fertilized plants
over our native plants found in the Crestone area.
Your dog could be another major problem when elk are around.
Dogs running lose will keep elk from visiting your home. “I
used to have elk bedding down in my front yard, but not any
more,” says Will Porter, who has lived out in Casita
Park for years. He associates the elk not visiting his home
with an increase in the number of dogs running lose and chasing
them away. Dogs on the loose love to chase elk and can wound
an elk so that it dies a lingering death. Even if an elk escapes
a dog attack unharmed, its chances of survival in the winter
can be jeopardized by the energy it expends outrunning dogs
through deep snow. Plus, your dog could also be in danger
when chasing elk or other wildlife, as it’s not only
against Colorado law to allow your dog to do this, but by
law a dog can be destroyed by any citizen or peace officer
for harassing wildlife.
Elk are amazing animals. The scientific name for them is Cervus
elaphus, and they are also called Red Deer or Wapiti
(from the Shawnee Indian name for "white rump").
They were once common throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
Nowadays, the population of these wild animals is scarce in
most places. The most abundant of the wild herds remaining
live in North America, mainly in western Canada and the western
During the early summer, elk graze on various grasses and
browse on tender seedlings and twigs. In late summer, when
the grasses are dried and yellowed, they browse on saplings,
berries, and mushrooms. During the winter, our elk eat dried
grass, pawed from beneath the snow, browse on trees and berry
bushes, and eat bark from trees and large shrubs. Elk feed
most actively after sunrise and before sunset. But if disturbed,
such as by humans during hunting season, they will feed only
Elk can run long distances at around 30 mph, and short bursts
up to 45 mph. There can be up to 14 feet between one track
and the next of the same foot by a speeding elk. They can
also leap 7-10 feet high and are excellent swimmers.
Elk have a good sense of smell and can detect predators at
a distance up to 700 feet. Elks’ hearing is not so well
developed; yet, they are alert and try to escape predators
once they sense them. Elk rely mostly on smell, and sight
is not as important.
Because there are fewer bulls compared to the number of available
cows, polygamy is practiced by elk. Most yearling bulls are
physically capable of breeding, but as long as older bulls
are present, they will not be sexually active. Some cows can
breed as early as their first year, but most do not breed
until around 2 years of age. Gestation lasts around 8 months.
One calf per birth is normal; 2-3 calves per birth is rare.
On average, elk live about 20 years.
North American elk are divided into six subspecies. Some call
these ecotypes instead of subspecies because their differences
are due largely to what and how much they eat.
1) Rocky Mountain Elk—population 850,000 (Colorado
herd is around 300,000): Males are usually larger than females
and can weigh twice as much. Average weight is about 900 pounds
for bulls and 600 pounds for cows, with calves weighing in
at 30 pounds. They range from north central British Columbia
down to New Mexico.
2) Tule or California Elk—population 3,200: The smallest
of the North American elk once lived in large numbers in California's
San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. Although the Tule elk
is the smallest of the elk, its small size appears to be largely
a function of the environment. Given good nutrition, it will
grow as large as our Rocky Mountain elk. Average weights:
adult female—400 pounds, adult male—550 pounds.
3) Roosevelt Elk—population 117,000: This elk is found
in the Pacific coastal forests of northern California, Oregon,
Washington, and Vancouver Island.
4) Manitoban Elk—population 21,000: This elk is found
in the southern prairie provinces of Canada and in North Dakota.
It has a darker coat color and smaller antlers than the Rocky
Mountain elk, and it weighs more than, but is about the same
size as, the Rocky Mountain elk.
5) Eastern Elk—believed to be extinct. It once lived
in Ontario, southern Quebec, and over much of the eastern
United States, excluding New England and Florida.
6) Merriam Elk—extinct. This animal once lived in western
Texas, New Mexico and mountains of Arizona.
If on a misty winter's morning in the Baca Grants you hear
a bugling call, look out your window. You have guests visiting.
It is such a thrill to see these massive beasts roaming in
our neighborhood. The Crestone Baca Land Trust has been purchasing
land, and especially Spanish Meadow in the Baca, to preserve
wildlife corridors and breeding areas for this wild wandering
elk herd we are blessed to have as neighbors.
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