Lack of snow, closed gates create problems for Owl Creek elk herd
Concerns that elk moving through the Owl Creek Valley were being traumatized by closed gates were alleviated this weekend when the fences were reopened.
Elk gates in the fence on the Owl Creek ranch owned by Hollywood mogul Peter Guber were reopened over the weekend, but no one seems to know who opened them.
During years when early-season snow is plentiful, the Burnt Mountain herd has usually moved out of the area by now. But because of a lack of snow this year, a major portion of the herd is still moving throughout the valley.
Openings in the fences, which are the main way the animals are able to move back and forth, were closed in early December. As a result the elk were forced to leap the green barrier to get to water or to escape predators.
Some time after a conversation Friday between Guber’s ranch manager and Pitkin County’s wildlife biologist, five sections of the fence were reopened. But biologist Jonathan Lowsky said the manager made no promises during that conversation, and he doesn’t know whether ranch personnel or a concerned neighbor opened the gates. Ranch employees could not be reached for comment Monday.
The late onset of winter this year has left forage available, and about 150 to 200 animals out of the herd have stayed behind as the others moved to Wildcat Ranch or further downvalley. The remaining animals are foraging on both sides of Owl Creek Road at a time of year when ordinarily they would have moved on. Elk ping-pong The long green wooden fence at Mandalay Ranch is not an absolute barrier to the elk, said wildlife activist Dan Kitchen. But as the herd moves between the north and south sides of Owl Creek Road, problems with fence crossings leave the animals stressed, at a time of year when it’s important for them to use every calorie of energy as efficiently as possible.
Animals stressed in this way have a harder time making it through the winter alive, Kitchen said.
Kitchen said 11 sections of the fence were open last year, and stayed open until deep snows fell about Dec. 22. This year, he said, only five sections were open, and then eventually closed before the animals left the area.
When a group of elk decides to cross, the stronger animals leap the fence while the weaker and younger ones hesitate. The animals that have crossed the fence are then in the roadway, where they are spooked by oncoming cars, repeatedly leaping back to rejoin the rest of the herd, Kitchen said. “It’s elk ping-pong,” he said.
Lowsky said though the animals can jump the fence, they will look for a way around it first.
“They’ll get to the fence and run back and forth, and try to find an opening,” he said. In winter temperatures, he said, it takes hundreds of calories an hour for an animal of that size just to stand still or lie down, and the extra activity affects their ability to live through the winter. Fences not necessary Elk tracks in shallow snow Friday told the same story. In the pasture south of the road, dozens of sets of elk tracks converge on a hinged section of the green fence. The tracks are dense, suggesting numerous elk milling around near the section of fence, which was previously open.
“It’s a shame that people in Pitkin County who don’t have livestock feel the need to build fences just to show the boundaries of their property,” Lowsky said. “In doing so, they hurt the wildlife that they moved here to enjoy.”
Kitchen agrees. “Guber’s fence and the East Owl Creek homeowners fence don’t have any purpose except ostentation.”
Kitchen said he watches the herd frequently. Late-season hunting on the Droste property, between the Brush Creek and Owl Creek valleys, has backed the herd up onto the Owl Creek area and East Owl Creek, areas where hunting is not permitted by land owners, he said.
The herd’s movements from one side of Owl Creek Road to the other mostly results from disturbances, Kitchen said. Hikers, hunters, predators or domestic dogs often move the animals. “All it takes is one coyote to spook 150 elk,” he said. Shoot first, ask later A man who identified himself only as Mark, the ranch manager at Mandalay Ranch, told the Times Friday an agreement between the ranch and Pitkin County concludes that ranch personnel will leave the gates open until Nov. 30 every year.
He said he closed the gates on Dec. 3 this season, waiting a few extra days because he noticed the elk were still around.
Joanna Schaffner, Pitkin County’s zoning official, said the agreement between Guber and the county is binding, and was based on a land-use approval the county granted for the ranch.
The gates were closed, Mark said, to ensure they would be closed when Guber arrived. “When my employer gets here, he wants those gates closed,” he said.
Lowsky said when he talked with Mark on Friday, he suggested that the ranch could do a lot for the herd by keeping the gates open a few weeks longer in years such as this, when snowfall doesn’t move the herd downvalley.
Mark complained that people have been “breaking down” the fence recently, and said he’d filed two police reports last week. Noting that anyone who left the roadway and approached the fence was trespassing, Mark threatened harm to such trespassers.
“In Colorado, you are allowed to shoot trespassers first and ask questions later,” he said. He said he’s outside every night waiting for someone to come by and knock down the fence, so he can file complaints against them. He said he’d already requested more frequent police patrols.
He said he and his employer do a lot for elk, just by not allowing hunting. “We offer them a safe place to stay,” he said. But he said that won’t necessarily continue.
“If they continue to break down the fence, Peter could just open the place to hunting,” he said.
But it may not be people who are knocking the fence down. Lowsky said elk weighing between 500 and 700 pounds could easily break such a fence in their attempts to clear it. Kitchen also presumed the elk may be breaking the fence.
“If you get 50 to 100 elk trying to jump the fence at one time, you’ll get some broken top rails,” Kitchen said. But he said the manager’s threat of permitting hunting on Guber’s land might not be such a bad idea. He said that might tend to move the herd further downvalley to safer areas.
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