Roaring Fork Valley wildlife most vulnerable in winter months |

Roaring Fork Valley wildlife most vulnerable in winter months

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times
Elk are extremely vulnerable in the winter months and need to conserve as much energy as possible to survive, especially in winters where the snow is deep and temperatures are low.
Contributed photo |

There’s a herd of elk that frequent the McLain Flats area that many nearby residents consider to be neighbors. Recently, that herd was grazing across from the home of Tom Moore when he noticed something spooked the elk into a stampede.

The herd was in a field surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and was bolting from one end of the field to the other.

Moore then saw the cause of the stampede — somebody in a van had driven too close to the herd, blocked the entrance to the field and then jumped out of the vehicle to take some pictures. Once the elk saw the human, they panicked.

Open Space and Trails Senior Ranger John Armstrong said the situation on McLain Flats is all too common for people who are unaware of the dangers they present to animals like elk, especially in the winter months.

“The elk are beautiful creatures and taking their picture doesn’t seem threatening,” Armstrong said. “The elk really don’t see vehicles as a threat, but when they see a two-legged creature like a human, it spooks them.”

By the time Moore made it to the bottom of his driveway, the person in the field got back in the van and left. By then, the damage had been done. One young elk was trampled by the larger elk amidst the stampeding and was hurt. “I watched the young cow get hammered by the other elk,” Moore said. “It lay down for awhile and I was hoping it would recover. When it finally got up, it was limping pretty bad.”

Moore said the rest of the herd left, but the young elk could barely make it across the street toward Moore’s home and was too weak to get past the ditch and fencing that borders his property.

“At that point, my choice was to let her freeze to death or put her down,” Moore said. “What a waste. Those elk are already cold and hungry. It made me so darn mad. Somebody has to speak up for those elk.”

Moore contacted John Groves, a district wildlife manager, who came out and explained that if people see someone harassing wildlife like elk, getting a license number or picture can help. If wildlife authorities can identify these people, they will fine them.

“The herd hasn’t come back down to this area since that incident in the field,” Moore said. “I’ll do what I can to keep them away from the road. The wildlife officer gave us some swizzlers, which are kind of like fireworks. You shoot them up in the air and it makes the elk go in the other direction. I’ve been doing that to keep the elk away from the road so another ass doesn’t come along and do the same thing all over again.”

On a recent trip up to Redstone, Armstrong saw a fair amount of wildlife near Highway 133. The early, deep snow forced more animals down to lower elevations in search of food and water.

“The elk and deer are especially vulnerable,” Armstrong said. “Running in deep snow burns up their energy and drains their body resources that they’ll need later in the winter. By the end of winter, they’ll be eating bark and living off their body fat. It’s a big strain on their bodies and especially tough on the weaker and pregnant elk and deer.”

One area that requires special attention at this time of the year is a stretch of Highway 82 between Twining Flats and the Aspen Village Phillips 66 Quick Mart. That area is referred to as “Elk Alley” and is marked with signs warning that between October and June, vehicular fines are doubled because of the elk- migration activity in that section of Pitkin County.

Last year, 14 elk were struck by vehicles and killed on that stretch of highway. Armstrong warns that drivers need to be extra cautious driving in that area, especially near the times of dawn and dusk.

“That area is treacherous at this time of the year,” he said. “Not only do the elk get slaughtered there every winter, there’s lots of property damage as well.”

Armstrong often patrols the Rio Grande and Hunter Creek Trails where many people walk their dogs. Educating people to keep their dogs on leash is a year-round job, but even more paramount in the winter.

Loose or uncontrolled dogs can have a significant impact to wildlife, from big game to small game species.

Direct mortality occurs when a dog chases and catches an animal. Dogs are not efficient killers and basically will rip an animal apart. Many are wounded to the point where they need to be euthanized.

Indirect mortality can occur when a , simply chases an animal. Deer and elk are on a declining diet and often need to survive on their fat reserves. When they’re chased, their heart and stress rates also increase, which in turn increases metabolism of their fat reserves.

“Not only will a dog chase a deer or elk, but if they mark their territory with urine, that can inhibit whether the deer or elk return to that area,” Armstrong said.

The public should also keep in mind that the Rio Grande and Hunter Creek Trails have seen increased reports of mountain-lion sightings. Lions will prey on loose or uncontrolled pets. Coyotes are also found throughout the area and will also prey on pets.

“Keeping your dog on leash really helps minimize the impact on wildlife.” Armstrong said. “It can also save your pet from becoming a victim as well.”

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