Tracking Elk |

Tracking Elk

If looks could kill, a 500-pound cow elk would have shot daggers into her captors last month when she was finally wrestled under control in a 50-foot-diameter corral.

The cow and her female calf ” who probably weighed in at a beefy 150 pounds after foraging on succulent grasses, forbs and tender young aspen trees in the mountains ” were unwitting and unwilling participants in a research project. Wildlife experts from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village have pooled efforts over the last three years to try to learn more about the Snowmass-Maroon Bells elk herd.

That herd spends summers feasting in the high-mountain meadows near the Maroon Bells and migrates downvalley to places like Cozy Point South, Wildcat Ranch and Williams Hill as the snow piles up in November. The best guesses are that it numbers 500 to 600 head.

The wildlife experts want to know exactly where the elk spend their summers and winters and how they migrate between the two ranges. Perhaps most important, they want to see precisely what grounds the elk choose for spring calving season.

The Snowmass-Maroon Bells herd happens to occupy an area under increasing development pressure. In order to ensure the herd’s survival, and to defend any habitat preservation efforts in court, wildlife managers must know more about where and how the elk live.

To get that information, the wildlife experts needed to capture 20 elk cows and fit them with radio collars that emit their own low-level frequency. The signals can be picked up only by receivers in an airplane.

Ten cows had already been captured, fitted and released during the prior two falls. The number of subjects decreased to nine when one of the elk was shot and killed by a hunter outside of Snowmass Village.

The wildlife experts wanted to boost the number of subjects to 20 cow elk this fall, but trapping wasn’t going so well. Because of the unseasonably warm weather, the elk had plenty to eat and couldn’t be lured into a corral baited with hay.

Morning after morning, the wildlife officers met promptly at 6:15 a.m. at the Rodeo Grounds in Snowmass Village with a handful of volunteers and other people interested in their research. And morning after morning, state wildlife officer Kevin Wright would send back a dejected word via radio that no elk had taken the bait.

Hunger gets the best of ’em

Finally on Nov. 18, the luck changed. The hapless cow and calf wandered into the enclosure sometime at night, started nibbling on the hay placed on the far side, then tripped a wire and shut themselves in the pen.

When Wright and former wildlife officer Larry Green checked the next morning and saw the elk, they had to tiptoe up and drop curtains all around the pen to help keep the animals calm. The enclosure consisted of a metal-framed corral fitted with rope mesh. Leading away from the circle was a narrow chute, which looked like the tail on a number 6.

At the end of the chute was a 6-foot holding pen designed to hold an elk.

Five current and former wildlife officers worked out a strategy to herd the cow through the chute and into the holding pen. The goal was to quickly slide a radio collar onto her neck and punch a tag into one of her ears.

The cow sensed something was up. She dashed around the pen, calf in tow, looking for a way out. Every now and then she would hurl her body into the fence, stretching the rope mesh by several feet.

At one point, she came to where an Aspen Times photographer was shooting through a narrow opening in the curtains, stopped and seemed to plead with her eyes for help.

Fear appeared to give way to anger when four men entered the enclosure. She dodged and weaved like Denver Bronco Clinton Portis. All the while the cow appeared aware of her calf, doubling back to ensure the youngster stayed with her. Eventually the cow was forced into the chute while the calf was kept separate.

Two of the men had heavy plywood shields designed to push an elk through the chute while avoiding the powerful back hooves.

Once in the pen the cow was unable to move. Bars were removed to get her head on the outside. Wright put her in a head lock. At first the cow resisted, then she seemed to give up, winded from her 5-minute game of tag. Her tongue stuck out, and thin clouds of steam heaved from her flaring nostrils and mouth.

While Wright held her in his grip, another officer slipped on the collar. After cinching the collar and trimming the excess, the wildlife officers attached a tag that identified this cow as subject No. 10.

Wright then gave the order for everyone to stand clear. Volunteers and officers scrambled for the nearby aspens, the pen was opened and, like an angry rodeo bull, Cow Elk No. 10 shot out, hurdled some dead trees and gracefully dashed across Owl Creek Road without getting hit.

The calf was chased into the pen in even shorter time. She was too small for a radio collar and was only tagged. Upon release, she dashed off toward her mother. Wildlife officers assured observers that a mother-daughter reunion would take seconds.

While the week’s effort yielded only one more cow for research, the information she provides could be invaluable for the survival of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass herd. (Five additional elk were netted Monday, Dec. 8, at a different site outside Snowmass Village.)

Elk tracked by air

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Wildcat Homeowners Association have contributed funds to the research project. The effort is being headed by Green, the town of Snowmass Village’s wildlife specialist. The collars are expected to last between five and seven years.

During that period, Bruce Gordon of the nonprofit EcoFlight will fly over the area at least once per month to collect readings and track the elk. Green and other experts will examine the information, but won’t share it with hunters.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife already had maps that showed approximate areas of summer range, winter range, calving areas and migration routes. But that information was mostly anecdotal, noted Jonathan Lowsky, Pitkin County’s wildlife biologist. Such field observations are “somewhat challengeable by outside reviews,” Lowsky said. “As you know, we do get sued over my opinions.”

This ongoing research will provide empirical data that can be used in court, if need be, to justify preservation of critical wildlife areas.

What are they learning

While the study is far from over, Green has already identified some fascinating trends involving the Snowmass-Maroon Bells herd. None of the collared animals have traveled farther downvalley than the Old Snowmass area.

Recent mild winters may have allowed the elk to stay upvalley, Lowsky said, on lands like the Wildcat subdivision, which preserved thousands of acres around a handful of mansions on large lots.

The slopes of Buttermilk ski area, Burnt Mountain and private lands such as movie mogul Peter Guber’s Mandalay Ranch serve as a nursery during calving season in late May and the first three weeks of June.

Once the calves are born, the elk travel higher as the snow retreats, ultimately spending summers around the Maroon Bells and the Conundrum Valley.

Like clockwork, the elk head downvalley when the snow begins to fly in October, often following the Maroon and Willow creek valleys.

“Willow Creek is a highway because there’s absolutely no development along it,” said Lowsky.

The elk then move onto Buttermilk and Burnt Mountain, then cross through Guber’s sprawling 500-acre ranch across Owl Creek Road onto more private lands owned by Peter Droste. After crossing Brush Creek Road and hitting the homes there, the elk splinter, according to Lowsky. Some go to Wildcat Ranch; others go over Watson Divide and onto Williams Hill.

Wayward cows

Green said the radio-collar tracking indicates the Snowmass-Maroon Bells herd tends not to cross south into the Gunnison River Valley. In other words, Aspen elk don’t appear to mix with those from Crested Butte.

The herd also tends to stay on the south side of Highway 82 and the Roaring Fork River, but there are interesting exceptions. One cow was last spotted on the north side of the highway and river, between Woody Creek and Old Snowmass, in April 2003. She hasn’t been tracked since.

Green said one of the most interesting travel patterns was established by a cow elk captured on Guber’s Mandalay Ranch on Oct. 29, 2001. In May 2002, that cow was hanging out near the reservoir at Wildcat. A month later, during the June calving season, the cow was on the upper slopes of Buttermilk ski area. For whatever reason, she didn’t appear to retreat to the far reaches of the mountains in summer 2002. She was on the high ridge above Buttermilk on Sept. 29, 2002, and migrated down to Owl Creek by Oct. 9. She was tracked almost to an identical spot to where she had been captured, collared and tagged almost one year before to the day.

What makes her movements interesting, said Green, is her range in the spring and summer of 2003. She was one of only two elk with collars to move north of Highway 82 and the Roaring Fork River.

On Jan. 22 of this year, this elk was camped on the Airport Ranch, easily within earshot of Aspen’s Sardy Field.

By March 13 she had crossed the busy highway as well as the river and was camped out on riparian ground just upvalley from the Airport Business Center.

April saw her travel from the Little Woody Creek area on the 10th to a spot seven miles away, as the crow flies, on lower Burnt Mountain on the 15th. But by April 27 she was back in Little Woody Creek.

The incredible feature of that journey, said Green, is that she negotiated busy roads, the river and dense development to cover a lot of ground in a short time.

As spring turned to summer, this particular elk spent July just east of Maroon Lake. She later picked her way down Maroon Creek Valley as the snow began to fall and was last tracked on Oct. 24, 2003, on Burnt Mountain, the prominent heap between Buttermilk and Snowmass ski areas.

Snowmass herd stands out

Lowsky said there are thousands of elk living in the Roaring Fork Basin, living in loose affiliations. He and other wildlife experts avoid using the word herd.

Females and calves tend to hang out together in small groups, Lowsky said. They are generally on the move at the same time, but aren’t necessarily traveling together.

The bulls generally stick to themselves but come around at breeding time. “The males go where the females are,” said Lowsky.

Colorado Division of Wildlife maps show migration routes all over the valley from the high country to lower, south-facing slopes where elk spend their winters.

Elk herds come off Smuggler Mountain and out of Woody Creek canyon to winter range along Upper River Road, downvalley from the community of Woody Creek. They come off Mount Sopris into both the Crystal River drainage and the Snowmass Creek/Capitol Creek areas.

Elk that spend summers along Richmond Ridge, which runs south from Aspen Mountain, spend winters along Castle Creek.

The Division of Wildlife has said elk herds are thriving across Colorado.

“At other parts of the state they really are overpopulated,” said Lowsky. “Some people think they’re hooved rats. They wonder why we should protect them.”

But the Snowmass-Maroon Bells herd is different. Experts believe the herd has shrunk since its height in the 1980s. The reason is loss of winter range.

Other herds in the Roaring Fork Basin rely almost entirely on public lands for summer and winter range and the migration routes between them. For example, the publicly owned Crown, the massive mound between El Jebel and Mount Sopris, is key to wintering elk. The winter range used by herds north of Highway 82 is also in public hands.

The Snowmass-Maroon Bells herd spends summers on national forest, but must migrate across private property and rely to a large degree on private lands for winter range.

“That’s why we’re focusing on this herd,” said Lowsky.

Development has already pinched the elks’ summer-winter migration corridor. The Pines and Two Creeks subdivisions in Snowmass Village, and the East Owl Creek and Owl Creek subdivisions have narrowed the migration route to about one mile where it crosses Owl Creek Road.

Other private lands provide some of the most important habitat in the valley ” including land adjacent to West Buttermilk owned by Gerald Hines and Guber’s Mandalay Ranch. They are transitional grounds that elk use after calving and before moving up into the mountains.

Lowsky credited Hines for clustering development around the Marolt Reservoir and placing a conservation easement on 300 acres above the pond. Nine homes in the Reservoir at West Buttermilk subdivision were clustered on 30 acres to limit disruption of wildlife.

The future is uncertain on Guber’s land. His 500-acre property is listed for sale for $37.5 million.

Across Owl Creek Road from Guber’s ranch is the Droste property and Seven Star Ranch, both of which are proposed for development. They are part of the triangular island bounded by Owl Creek and Brush Creek roads and Highway 82. Without preservation of migration routes across that land, the elk couldn’t reach their winter range.

Pitkin County government and landowner Peter Droste have already taken their land-use battle to court.

“People ask why they are being punished just because they are the last to develop. It’s because they are the last to develop,” said Lowsky. The elk don’t have anywhere else to go, he explained.

Elk will “habituate” to development. They will continue to use their traditional migration routes even if there are roads and homes. But more humans create more stress and probably reduce the herd’s size, Lowsky said.

“So far the migration corridor is working fine,” said Green, noting that it was narrow but still adequate. But like Lowsky, he sees challenges on the horizon.

“Someday there’ll be tough decisions to make,” said Green.

Lowsky said development can be accommodated on both the Droste and Guber properties, if it’s clustered to cause the least disruption.

“As important as Droste and Seven Star are, Mandalay is 10 times more important,” he said.

Mixed views on future

Dan Kitchen knows how important Mandalay is to the elk. Although he doesn’t have any formal training as a wildlife biologist, Kitchen has spent countless hours observing elk in high-altitude meadows and migration corridors outside of Snowmass Village.

His most memorable sights include two bull elks fighting over a harem of about 30 cows, and seeing and smelling action in an elk wallow, usually a wetland area where a bull roots around and urinates to attract a cow for breeding.

Kitchen also recalled one early morning along Owl Creek Road when he “watched 150 to 200 pop through a barbed-wire fence. The rush of seeing them deal with cars is exciting but scary,” he said.

His biggest concern with development is the construction of fences that don’t have openings for the animals to pass through. The herd gets fragmented and the newborns, in particular, get separated and stressed.

In October 1995, Kitchen was convicted of criminal mischief for taking a chain saw to Guber’s fence to create an opening for elk. It was an act of civil disobedience that followed five years of unsuccessfully lobbying ranch managers, Pitkin County and the wildlife division for improvements to the fence.

After the case was resolved, Guber relented and created openings. “Since he has those openings, I sleep a lot better,” said Kitchen.

But he’s concerned about the potential sale and development of Guber’s land. If it occurs, he predicts the herd will dwindle by half.

“I’ve basically given up hope for them over the long-range future,” Kitchen said. “Development’s only going to continue to get worse.”

Lowsky hasn’t lost hope. Information from this research project could justify tough decisions that need to be made for the preservation of the herd.

“That way no developer can say to me, ‘That’s not where they go. That’s not important,’ ” said Lowsky.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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