by M. Diane Bairstow
Starting in August, we begin to hear them. The lonely bull elks bugling for their mates.
Perhaps they say something like, “Single male, 900 lbs. and 5’ tall with a 4’ rack of antlers, can run 25 mph, jump 4-5 ft. Looking for loving females, 4.5’ tall, 500 lbs., . . .”
Scraaatch! Rewind. He’s not calling females at all. The lonely bulls are calling other males in order to steal their harems! The rascals.
That interesting—if somewhat disillusioning—fact, and everything else there is to know about elk, I learned from Ron Garcia, the manager of the 92,000-acre Baca National Wildlife Refuge. I’d like to thank him up front for all the good work he does on the refuge and for all the information he shared with me, that I now get to share with you.
Native Americans called the elk ‘wapiti’
Elk were known as “wapiti” by the Native Americans, which means “light-colored deer.” They are related to deer, but are much larger. They are also ungulates and ruminants. Ungulates are split-hooved animals with even toes; ruminants, the most well-known being cows, have a four-chambered stomach. Elk are primarily grazers, like cows, but they also browse. Browsers glean leaves, bark, and green stems from plants, while grazers clip vegetation at or near ground level
The elk are in the greater Crestone area all year round, but most visible in the fall and winter. They congregate on areas such as the Baca National Wildlife Refuge and the Great Sand Dunes National Park and spread out into the Baca Subdivision and surrounding areas. During this time, they are more frequently seen on Rd. T or Hwy. 17, so it’s good to be extra cautious during October and November.
Right now the population on the Refuge numbers between 1700 and 2200 elk.
In general, the elk population on the refuge fluctuates from about 1000 to 3000 animals. In fall and winter, the population increases because of pressures from hunting, and right now, Ron estimates, there are 1700-2200 elk roaming the Refuge’s rabbit brush and greasewood plains.
The herd seems healthy, there are no signs of disease, and the size is manageable. In fact, the carrying capacity of the landscape could handle more elk. However, their habits, preferences and patterns put them at “threshold impact” on the neighborhood.
As elk move through the terrain, they create wide paths—super highways—leaving ground-nesting birds such as sparrows, meadowlarks, kestrels and killdeer, more vulnerable to attack by fox and coyotes. Also, young cottonwood and willow saplings growing along the creek are a special treat for them, but this dietary preference is not so healthy for the recovering riparian areas.
Willow and cottonwood saplings are the elks’ favorite treat
When the Refuge was a working cattle ranch, the willows were undesirable as they encroached the meadows, and the owners pretty much wiped them out, even resorting to the use of herbicides. Now, as the Refuge tries to rebuild the natural riparian habitat, the elk eat the new growth before it has a chance to mature and renew the land. To remedy this situation, the Refuge has created eight-foot high fences, ‘exclosures,’ to keep the elk away from the willows and cottonwoods along the creeks. This is successful, but a lot more funding is needed to protect the length of both South Crestone and North Crestone Creeks, which run through the Refuge.
Hunting on the Refuge
In our area, humans are the elks’ only predator. A bear or a mountain lion will occasionally take an elk, but primarily they prey on small animals. Coyotes will sometimes take down a sick elk, but not a healthy one. This year, for the first time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is issuing hunting permits for the Refuge. It is an experiment and there are only 5 licenses for each of the 4 rifle-hunting seasons. They will start in mid-October and extend over a period of a month and a half.
The purpose of the experiment is to see if there is enough hunting pressure to move the elk back into the forest and onto some private and BLM land north of the Refuge where hunters can have more access to them. The State is interested in reducing the number of elk and the Refuge is trying to assist the State in meeting their goals.
Some elk stay home; others are adventurers
Apparently some elk are more homebodies than others. There’s not a lot of data about their movement, but 10 years ago, about 60 cows were collared and tagged with tracking devices. They found that some do not go far beyond the Refuge borders, while others roam all the way to Poncha Pass, Russell Lakes and the high country, returning to the Refuge in the winter. One of the cows died, but her remains were finally found down in New Mexico near Ojo Caliente.
Historically there is not any definitive information about how many elk roamed the San Luis Valley. Ron speculates that they were probably everywhere: in the mountains and on the plains. Through human development, they gradually disappeared from the valley floor, and by 1900 they were gone. It wasn’t until the 1980s that they began to reestablish themselves on the valley floor, and ranchers from that time recall it was exciting to see an elk because they were so rare.
‘Satellite bulls’ sneak in and do a lot of the breeding
August is the start of the mating process. Bulls are gathering cows and fighting for each other’s harems. They expend a lot of energy fighting and running off other bulls, and the smaller “satellite bulls” take advantage of the situation to sneak in and do a lot of the breeding. By December the mating process is over and the bulls and cows go their own separate ways in gender-specific herds.
Around the first of June, the cows are giving birth. For safety, they prefer big open areas and wet meadows to drop their calves as they can see the approach of a predator far in the distance. Cows usually have one calf, but occasionally two. Like deer, the calves are born spotted and unscented.
Unlike bulls that basically only have one vocalization—bugling—cows make a wide variety of noises to communicate with their young and to deter other critters. They bark like a dog, grunt and make a short whistling sound.
Antlers grow at a surprising rate
In the spring, March and April, the bulls shed their antlers, which can grow up to 4’ tall and weigh in excess of 8 lbs. each. The antlers on the larger elk fall off because of the weight, and when one drops, the bull will stop and try to get the other one off. New growth causes younger bulls to shed an antler, but the loss of one doesn’t seem to bother them. Antlers grow amazingly fast. By July they are full size, and the soft, fuzzy antler becomes hard and bone-like because of the decreased blood flow. Male elk run with their nose pointed upward and their head tilted back, probably to keep their antlers from getting tangled in branches.
Elk try to be as stealthy as possible, are generally shy unless cornered, and they try to avoid people. The winter months are hard on them, so if you run across them during that time, be cautious and considerate and don’t add to their stress. From mid-October to the end of November, when hunters are pursuing them, they are more active and less cautious when running across roads. Watch out on Rd. T and Hwy. 17, year round, but particularly during hunting season.
If you have any questions about the elk, or the Refuge, Ron Garcia encourages you to call. The number is 719-256-5527. And there is an awesome group of volunteers, the Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges help plant saplings along the creek in the spring and generally supports the Refuge’s efforts. For more information and/or to join the Friends, please call the Refuge office to get details.
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