For most of this spring, the elk and deer populations have become highly visible along the stretch of Highway 82 between Snowmass Canyon and the Brush Creek turnoff that leads up to Snowmass Village.
The elk and deer are especially active in the early-morning hours, at dusk and throughout the evening. The animals are preparing to move to higher ground as part of their annual spring migration. For now, their main interest is to revitalize their bodies with as many calories as possible.
The deer hunt for sage bushes, one of their favorites locally, while the elk will search for leftover grain stubble. Both are attracted to the “green-up” of plants near the highway. Perry Will, the Area 8 wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said the plant life near the highway usually gets a head start because of the direct light and warmth of the asphalt.
“What the elk and deer are after is the highest amount of protein they can consume,” Will said. “This is the time of the year when they start that process to fatten up and store calories. Spring greens are one of their favorites and the nutritional value of the greens continues to improve each passing day. Believe me, the animals know that and will search out those greens.”
Will said that it’s critical for all motorists to be aware of the potential for an animal encounter just about anywhere along Highway 82. When it comes to animals crossing the highway, Will said not to fall into a false sense of security if a person sees an animal crossing ahead of them.
“It’s not necessarily the first deer or elk a person sees crossing the highway that they need to be aware of,” Will said. “It’s the second or third animal that often gets hit. I can’t emphasize enough the need to be extra cautious while driving right now.”
People not only need to be aware of the possibility of animal encounters while driving, they also need to understand the potential consequences of any people-animal encounters that take place.
A recent article in the Vail Daily highlighted the need for people to leave injured or stray wildlife alone, or risk a tragic ending to the apparently friendly encounter. Local police and state wildlife officers have received reports that large crowds have been approaching, feeding and harassing an injured cow elk grazing in a field near East Vail.
If an elk gets aggressive, there’s a strong likelihood the animal would have to be put down.
“It is not only extremely irresponsible and unethical to harass and feed wildlife, it is also illegal, and they will be fined if caught,” Ron Velarde, northwest regional manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, told the Vail Daily. “These people are essentially condemning the animal to death and putting our officers in the position of having to carry out the sentence.”
Bears are also active again and awareness of garbage disposal is critical right now. Since most bear and people encounters stem from garbage issues, Will strongly encourages people to take a little extra time and care when securing their trash outdoors.
“I’m literally begging people to take care of their trash,” Will said. “Most people should know by now that once a bear gets a taste for garbage, they’ll keep coming back for more. We don’t want to get to the stage where we have to relocate or put a bear down. That’s the last thing we want.”
Will said it’s become increasingly difficult throughout Colorado to relocate problem bears.
“People assume we’re dropping bears off in the wild and they live happily ever after,” Will said. “That’s not true at all. Nobody wants a problem bear in their area, and we’re running out of areas throughout the state to relocate them.”
Bears also are a hazard to motorists because of their unpredictable nature. Will said bears can appear anywhere along Highway 82 and often are concealed until the moment they reach the highway.
The stretch of Highway 82 near the Pitkin County landfill is a popular area for bears to cross and access the landfill when their natural food supply diminishes.
“This is the season where we try and encourage the public to take extra caution while driving,” Will said. “There’s nothing good that comes from an animal-automobile encounter.”