The Crestone Eagle, November 2004:

The magnificent Baca elk herd

by Keno

It 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 late 1970s.

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 hands.

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 goal.

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 and abundance.

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 behavior.

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 facts
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 US.

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 at night.

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.

Elk species
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.

Back home
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.